As TV viewers watched the men’s and women’s winners approach the finish line of last Sunday’s New York City Marathon, they also caught something else in the Central Park background: patches of green grass, devoid of fans offering runners a final cheer. According to The New York Times, the usual crowd of spectators stayed away from the finish line, perhaps fearful of security checks “or perhaps [fearing] what happened near the finish in Boston this year.” The newspaper also reported “many fewer” fans along the course than in most years.
Overall, the race was a success, amid ever-present security: more bomb-sniffing dogs, police helicopters, and metal detectors in the starting area. Race director Mary Wittenberg praised the $1 million safety effort — twice the amount spent on previous New York Marathons — and crowed about the results: “Zero incidents, zero threats, really smooth.” Boston, whose marathon next April will require a similar security blitz, should look to New York as a model. As for whether spectators should join the crowd, each individual will have to make his or her own decision. But comfort levels should rise as similar events go off without a hitch.
Last month’s Chicago Marathon was also a success, despite some complaints about a security measure that required tickets for bleacher space previously available on a first-come, first-served basis, according to the Chicago Tribune. The top American woman finisher in Chicago, Clara Santucci, said she understood the precautions, but added, “I just hope they can figure out [a solution] so spectators aren’t kept from being able to see the most exciting parts of the race, like the start and the finish. It’s what our sport is all about, and I don’t want that taken from us.”
For next year, police and the Boston Athletic Association will have to come up with a plan in which security precautions are visible enough to assuage the concerns of runners and spectators, but still navigable enough to allow fans to watch the start and finish. The handling of other big public events this year should bolster confidence. Turnout for the Fourth of July Pops concert and fireworks on the Esplanade was below the usual half million — though heat, rather than fear of terrorism, may have been partly to blame. Still, police estimated that 300,000 people attended, with no major incidents. Nor were there any serious problems when tens of thousands of fans jammed into Boston to celebrate the Red Sox World Series title.
Security planners and first responders here and elsewhere are doing the hard work to ensure that last April’s attack won’t threaten the future of big public gatherings in American cities. If events continue to go forward as peacefully as last week’s New York Marathon, spectators in cities across the country will feel confident enough to come out in greater numbers.