It was a great fear realized, a terror attack unleashed on spectators attending a major American sporting event.
It has been written about in literature and made into harrowing movies (Black Sunday by Thomas Harris and The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy). It has been simulated and planned for with equal measures of intensity and dread since the Sept. 11 attacks. But the bombing at the 117th Boston Marathon Monday wasn’t anything from fiction, film, or a drill. It was all too real, and so is the pain, anguish, sadness, and loss left in its wake.
There is an inside-journalism quip at the Globe that those in Sports work in the Toy Department of journalism. We’re rarely confronted with the kinds of grave circumstances, grisly scenes, and weighty issues that our news counterparts are forced to wade into. Sports is largely about trivia (Who was the last athlete to do this or that?) and in the grand scheme of existence trivial.
What we were reminded of on Patriots Day is that there is no Toy Department in life. There is no toy chest in an open, democratic society that you can bury your head into. The sporting world and the real world are not alternate realities. They are not parallel universes. They’re intertwined.
That’s why this was a particularly insidious attack because it was conducted on more than a world-class event in a world-class city, but on an idea. The idea that sports provide a safe haven, a distraction, a timeout from the unspeakable horrors and intractable troubles of the real world.
Sadly, the 117th Boston Marathon won’t be remembered for the valiant victories of runners Lelisa Desisa and Rita Jeptoo and wheelchair marathoners Hiroyuki Yamamoto and Tatyana McFadden. It will be remembered for the loss of lives, limbs, and the feeling of blissful insulation at a sporting event, none of which can be reclaimed.
Sports are supposed to serve as an escape from the worries, wars, and raging conflicts of the real world, a sort of societal sanctuary. Athletics played a tremendous role in providing comfort, normalcy, and healing to people in this country after Sept. 11. The games went on and so did a shell-shocked America.
I still get chills every time I hear U2’s “Beautiful Day” on the radio. Not because it was the soundtrack of the Patriots’ first Super Bowl title. But because that victory came on Feb. 3, 2002, less than five full months after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and United Flight 93. There is a swell of feelings and emotions attached to that familiar timbre that have nothing to do with Tom Brady or Adam Vinatieri.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft had employees from both the Patriots and the New England Revolution soccer club running in the Boston Marathon as part of the 34-member Patriots Charitable Foundation team. They raised $248,000 for the Myra Kraft Community MVP Award. Just five members of the team crossed the finish line before the explosions. One of them was Christy Berkery, a member of the Patriots media relations staff.
This was Berkery’s second Boston Marathon and fifth marathon overall. She finished in 3 hours and 54 minutes, crossing the finish line at about 2:42 p.m., eight minutes before the first blast. Her previous Boston Marathon time was 4:01:51.
She was in line waiting for her medal when she heard the first explosion. She had just received her medallion when the second bomb blast echoed down Boylston Street. Berkery called her waiting boyfriend, Ben Huggins, retrieved her bag off a bus, and eventually rendezvoused with Huggins to drive home, not knowing exactly what had occurred.
“It still feels very surreal,” she said. “I’m looking at the video now. I was literally a block away from it, and I had no idea that was what was going on. I heard the sounds and noise and knew it was not a good thing. But you have no idea that’s what’s going on 100 yards away. I would definitely run it again, but I think I would have to really consider where I’d want my friends and family to be. It’s scary — you would have never thought of the Marathon as a situation to be afraid of.”
Whether foreign or domestic, the perpetrator or perpetrators have struck at the heart of something we hold dear and sacred not just here in Boston, the cradle of independence and the Mount Olympus of marathoning, but in American culture.
It is meaningful that this bombing was executed at a sporting event. It is also not unintentional.
The triple-insulated cocoon of sports has been breached. Sports and sporting events are not inoculated against evil. They’re not immune from the most base and wanton acts of man.
Because of the symbolism of this attack, I would implore the Boston Athletic Association to let any of the thousands of runners who were stopped on the course during the bombings run down Boylston Street across the finish line once it is no longer a crime scene and deemed secure by authorities.
It would be a symbolic riposte with real meaning. You can slow us down, but you can’t stop us. Athletic events and our lives will not cower to terror. We will keep putting one foot in front of the other and move forward.
The Boston Marathon always has been a test and testament of the human spirit, of endurance, a triumph of willpower and determination over pain and distress. My lasting image of the marathon is Uta Pippig pushing through severe intestinal turmoil and bleeding in 1996 to become the first woman to win the race three consecutive times.
It is in the resilient spirit of the Marathon and its participants that we must go on as sports fans and spectators and citizens, showing up to cheer on our athletes, our friends, our family members, our neighbors.
Keep going to games and matches and races, but go on understanding that there is no Toy Department.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.