The race could have been held. The 26.2-mile course was clear from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Central Park, where the finish line had been painted in the traditional blue and orange. The elite runners had arrived and were ready to answer the gun on Sunday morning and nearly 50,000 recreational runners were expected to join them.
But as opposition from politicians, citizens, and even runners themselves continued to build late Friday afternoon, City Hall and event organizers concluded that the New York City Marathon, which had been staged annually since 1970, should not be held while the metropolitan area still was struggling to come back to life after Monday’s watery devastation by Hurricane Sandy.
“While holding the race would not require diverting resources from the recovery effort, it is clear that it has become the source of controversy and division,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg and race director Mary Wittenberg said in a joint statement. “The marathon has always brought our city together and inspired us with stories of courage and determination. We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants and so have decided to cancel it.”
The decision came only a few hours after Bloomberg had reaffirmed his earlier declaration that the race should be held as scheduled, saying that the city “has to show that we are here and we are going to recover.” But as the outcry intensified, he and Wittenberg concluded that cancellation was their only option after organizers had decided that running a substitute race over the final 10 miles of the course from the Queensboro Bridge was impractical.
“We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event — even one as meaningful as this — to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track,” they said in their statement.
The mayor and the New York Road Runners had believed that holding the marathon would have provided a psychological restorative for the battered city, much as the event did 11 years ago when residents still were dealing with the shock and grief of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers that killed nearly 3,000 people and destroyed a large section of lower Manhattan. “If you go back to 9/11,” said Bloomberg, “Rudy [Giuliani] made the right decision in those days to run the marathon and pull people together.”
The organizers, who pledged $1 million toward a storm relief fund in addition to $1.5 million from the Rudin family foundations and race sponsor ING, had labeled the event “The Race To Recover.”
“There’s something that can lift the spirit of this city as New Yorkers see that what we all know is the greatest day in the life of a city, the New York City Marathon, is going to go on,” NYRR chairman George Hirsch had said.
In addition to the anticipated emotional uplift, the marathon was expected to provide an estimated $340 million boost to a New York economy that is reckoned to have lost many times that figure after power was knocked out and the transportation network shut down. Many of those dollars would have been spent by the out-of-town competitors. An estimated 40,000 of them already had arrived on Friday and were dealing with a variety of logistical challenges in a city still plagued with power outages, inoperable subways, and snarled traffic.
Cambridge resident Kevin Bolger had reserved a room in Tribeca to be near the ferry to Staten Island. Because the hotel was without electricity Bolger had switched to a midtown hotel, but would have had to check out on Saturday.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do at the moment,” he said Friday morning.
Race organizers had guaranteed entry next year to all runners who withdrew by Saturday. It was unclear whether participants would have fees refunded or receive any reimbursement for travel expenses.
“We have a lot to work through,” said Wittenberg.
Canton resident Amy Hopkins had planned on staying with friends in Staten Island after taking the train from Connecticut, then decided to defer her entry until next year.
“The logistics were just way too crazy,” said Hopkins, who’ll run instead in Sunday’s Manchester City Marathon in New Hampshire. “I’m bummed about it, but that’s the best decision for me,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily support the decision to have the [New York City] marathon this weekend. The restoration really needs to happen.”
That was the argument made by a growing number of critics who said that the race should not be run while the five boroughs still were dealing with the death and debris caused by a historic superstorm and needed the police and sanitation workers that would have been diverted to the marathon.
Staten Island, where the race begins at the bridge’s toll plaza, suffered the most damage of any of the city’s neighborhoods and still was in disarray.
“What we have here is terrible, a disaster,” borough president James Molinaro said on Wednesday. “If they want to race, let them race with themselves. This is no time for a parade. A marathon is a parade.”
The New York race, with a $600,000 purse for the planet’s elite male and female racers, is the culmination of the annual World Marathon Majors series, which pays a $500,000 bonus to the runners with the most points over a two-year span. It also is the city’s largest outdoor spectator event, with an estimated 2 million people lining the streets. But with many of those spectators more concerned with restoring their lives to normalcy amid a sodden city, the marathon had become a diminished diversion.
“This is what we need to do,” Wittenberg said after the cancellation was announced, “and the right thing at this time.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.