The Marathon Should Have Been Canceled

English: ING NYC Marathon

English: ING NYC Marathon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I know I’m not the first person to write about the status of the ING NYC Marathon (scheduled to take place this Sunday) in the wake of hurricane Sandy. And I’m sure I won’t be the last, either. Everyone seems to have an opinion about it. This is mine.

I understand the months of work and sacrifice that go into training for a marathon, and I can only imagine how difficult it is for New York Road Runners to coordinate and handle all that the marathon entails–all the organizational challenges, road closures, food and water stations, medical tents…the list goes on and on. The fact that they manage to do it year after year is impressive, and no matter what your opinion of the organization is, you have to give them credit for that. In spite of all the blood, sweat, tears, and money that go into every aspect of the marathon, though, I can’t believe that the marathon was not canceled this year.

Earlier this week, NYRR released a statement saying that “the marathon has always been a special day for New Yorkers as a symbol of the vitality and resiliency of this city.” I hate it when people use that justification to defend a decision or event. New York would be a vital, resilient city with or without this year’s marathon. And my guess is that having 40,000-50,000 people run 26.2 miles through the city’s 5 boroughs isn’t going to lift the spirits of the thousands of people who are still without power.

Right now, New York is a city with a problem on its hands. Neighborhoods have burned to the ground, and countless other homes were lost to flooding and other damages wrought by the storm. The death toll is rising as rescue workers continue to find the bodies of the hurricane’s victims. Police have only just found the bodies of two young children who were swept away from their mother on Staten Island, where the marathon starts. Power outages are widespread, and there are areas in which the water isn’t safe to drink. Many city residents are without access to transportation and food. Police presence has been increased to deter crime and looters on pitch black streets. The public transit system, used by 10 million commuters every day, has ground to a near-complete halt as trips that previously took 30 minutes now take hours and involve waiting in long lines with other tired, stressed, and angry people. Relief organizations are continuously asking for more volunteers in order to accommodate the demand on the resources they have to offer, and donations of basics such as blankets, baby items, warm clothing, and flashlights. And on Sunday, the marathon runners will make their way through all five of New York City’s boroughs as though none of this is going on.

Running a marathon is a luxury, and there’s something unsettling about the fact that while tens of thousands of runners grab cups of water from aid stations and throw half of the contents away as they drop their cups on the ground and move on, there are hundreds of thousands (according to some estimates) who could really use a cup of water but don’t have access to it. I’m not blaming the runners here at all–I would never begrudge a runner a cup of water, or a race. But I have a really hard time accepting the fact that NYRR and the mayor of the city don’t seem to find it tacky that an event like this would take place given the circumstances the city is in.

Of course Mayor Bloomberg has acknowledged the fact that holding the marathon at this time might be a bit problematic. Earlier today, he assured the city that the marathon wouldn’t divert resources from those in need. But I don’t see how that’s possible. The marathon requires an increased police presence, the closure of roads (as if our transportation options aren’t limited enough already), a huge number of volunteers…if these resources aren’t being diverted by the marathon, where are they coming from?

I know a number of people who are running the marathon this year, and I wish every single runner well. But I still wish the race weren’t taking place. I know it would be emotionally devastating for all the runners who have been anticipating this race for weeks, months, and in many cases, even years. But right now, that disappointment is insignificant compared to the needs of the people who have been so affected by this storm. In times like this, it’s important for a city’s population to come together and reconnect with its feeling of resiliency; hosting a marathon is not the way to do this, it’s just a mask meant to make things look like they’re okay when they aren’t. I know New York sometimes gets wrapped up in the way the rest of the world sees it, becoming more of a performance of New York than New York itself. But this time I think the performance is going a bit too far.


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