For the first time in its 43-year history, the annual New York City Marathon was canceled. But you might not have known it had you been in Central Park on Sunday morning, where several thousand marathoners — running for charities, causes, personal pride or the good of the city — took to the Park to run a makeshift 26.2 miles. Meanwhile, hundreds of others who had been registered for the race made their way to Staten Island to lend their time, bodies and resources to those still devastated by Hurricane Sandy, left homeless, cold and powerless.
Even though the latter activity seems more humane in face of the cancellation, both were important in moving the city forward from its recent devastation. In fact, might the city have been better off simply holding the marathon in the first place? It’s hard to say if the marathon should have been run this past Sunday, just six days after Hurricane Sandy covered parts of New York with a carpet of water. Until last Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had insisted on hosting the race. One of the strongest reasons why was economic: The 40-something thousand runners, some 30,000 of them international, bring an estimated $340 million to the city, including many parts that are currently economically depressed. Some hotels and businesses consistently rely upon serving runners and spectators for their biggest days of the year.
There are certainly arguments that the city could not, in good conscience, host the race. One such argument centered on misallocation of resources. Critics said that reassigning police officers to guard runners when those in Sandy’s wake still needed help in recovering was insensitive and unacceptable. But Mayor Bloomberg contested this point; he said that securing the marathon would require no resources to be diverted from the recovery effort.
Many others felt strange knowing that hotel rooms were being occupied by runners, while those who lost their homes were still struggling to find a place to stay. This attitude was epitomized by Staten Island hotel owner Richard Nicotra, who turned away marathoners from his Bloomfield Hilton with reservations made long ago so that storm refugees had a place to stay. Hurricane Sandy caused an acute disaster and everything should be done to aid those New Yorkers who have lost their homes or their ways of life. But it is worth noting that there are nearly identical long-term problems that would not, and have not, precluded this marathon from being run. New York currently has an all-time high number of homeless people, some 45,000. Unemployment in New York is hovering around 9 percent, and many people are struggling to find work. But it would not have been criticized as hypocritical or heinous to run the marathon through poor neighborhoods that contain many homeless or unemployed. The marathon’s being run this year would not have hurt or antagonized those in need, nor would it have hindered the city’s furious effort to relocate them and to provide them with power. It is possible to have an acute recovery effort while still attempting to proceed respectfully with life, including its major events.
But holding the race was made impossible because of public pressure. There were silly and misguided actions from both supporters and opponents of running the marathon. Some marathon runners were reported as sobbing when news of the cancellation reached them. On the Internet, potential spectators threatened the physical safety of runners, should they participate in the race.
And so it was a sensible decision to cancel the New York City Marathon, not because it would have been detrimental to the recovery effort, but because it was dividing public opinion. The race is meant to unite New Yorkers. Mayor Bloomberg and the New York Road Runners did the proper thing: They listened.
I wish that my fellow New Yorkers would not have made it so difficult to hold the race. As the mayor said at a press conference, “You can grieve, you can cry and you can laugh, all at the same time. That’s what human beings are good at.” After six days of grieving and crying, people should have recognized that the city was ready to laugh for just one morning.