After the shock comes the resolve. To rebuild. To carry on. To show the world that tragedy is temporary.
What befell Boston and its fabled marathon a year ago has happened in various forms at other times in other places. Cities have been traumatized, as New York was by 9/11, as London was by the Blitz, as New Orleans was by Hurricane Katrina, as northeastern Japan was by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Sports teams with deep local identities have been devastated by plane crashes, as Manchester United’s soccer team was in 1958 and Marshall’s football team was in 1970.
All of them eventually rebounded, and in each case a sporting event was the symbol of resurgence. The New York City Marathon was held less than two months after the World Trade Center was leveled in 2001 by terrorists piloting hijacked planes. London hosted the 1948 Summer Olympics while its streets still were piled with rubble. The Japanese women’s soccer team won the World Cup over the favored Americans in a dramatic shootout four months after their homeland’s worst disaster since the 1945 atomic bombings.
The New Orleans Saints, who’d played an entire season on the road while the Superdome was being renovated in the wake of the storm that obliterated neighborhoods, returned to win their first home game in 2006 and went on to reach the conference final for the first time in franchise history.
Man U played in the final of that season’s F.A. Cup with a patchwork lineup, and Marshall won its next home game the following year with a makeshift team.
And the Red Sox, whose last-place finish the previous season had left the citizenry disgusted, produced a startling turnaround last October, winning the World Series at Fenway Park, where a “B Strong” logo adorned the Green Monster.
“This jersey that we wear today, it doesn’t say Red Sox,” designated hitter David Ortiz told the Fenway faithful before the club’s first home game after the marathon. “It says Boston. This is our [expletive] city.”
The Boylston Street bombings, which left three people dead and 264 others maimed and injured, were a horrific violation of an iconic race that had been a civic tradition since the 19th century and had become so closely identified with the city that marathoners from around the world would say simply, “I’m running Boston.”
Virtually everyone in the area either had run in the race, knew someone who had, or had watched from sidewalks that were so close to the competitors that spectators could hand them water and oranges, call them by name or, at Wellesley College’s famous “scream tunnel,” kiss them.
An attack on the marathon was an attack on the city.
Making a statement
While New York’s marathon dated only from 1970, its layout runs through each of the city’s five boroughs (Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan) and ends in Central Park, the peoples’ gathering place since 1857. After 3,000 people lost their lives when the signature Twin Towers tumbled, staging the race in November 2001 was seen as all but mandatory.
“The mayor said the marathon is quintessential New York,” said race director Allan Steinfeld. “We’ve got to do it.”
Ground Zero still was smoldering when 30,000 runners, escorted by police and firefighters, took the line at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. At Grand Central Station, dozens of poignant missing posters with photographs of victims still were affixed to columns (“Last seen on 93rd floor of South Tower on 9/11”).
“It was as if something had happened to the Colosseum,” said runner Franca Fiacconi, who was in Rome when she watched the towers collapse on television. “I felt it very much.”
‘We are stronger than they are. Our ideas are ideas of free people. Their ideas are ideas of oppressed people. We are right. They are wrong.’ - Rudy Giuliani, New York’s mayor, speaking to runners before the start of the 2001 New York Marathon in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks
Fiacconi determined that she would participate. So did Joan Benoit Samuelson, who hadn’t run a 26-miler since the previous year’s Olympic trials.
“I hope this will help with the healing process,” said Samuelson, who tipped her cap whenever she passed a firehouse along the course. “I think this might be a turning point for the city.”
The marathon was a statement both of defiance and determination.
“We are stronger than they are,” Mayor Rudy Giuliani told the competitors before the start. “Our ideas are ideas of free people. Their ideas are ideas of oppressed people. We are right. They are wrong.”
When London hosted the 1948 Summer Olympics three years after the end of World War II, the city still was rebuilding from the wreckage wrought by the Luftwaffe, which killed more than 40,000 people and demolished or damaged more than a million homes. England’s citizenry still was living on rationed food and petrol. While staging a global athletic event might not have been a priority, King George VI believed the Olympics would be a chance for Britain to show that it had risen from ruin.
London originally had been scheduled to host the canceled 1944 event, so it was the logical and fitting site for what would be the first Games since Adolf Hitler orchestrated the 1936 edition in Berlin as a showcase for Aryan supremacy. These would be the “Austerity Games,” with the organizers building no new venues and using military camps and colleges for athletes’ villages.
The official logo featured Big Ben, the city’s most recognizable landmark, and the Opening Ceremonies were held at Wembley Stadium, the country’s sporting cathedral, featuring a five-ringed Olympic flag that the British Army had discovered intact amid the Berlin wreckage.
“Your Majesty: The hour has struck,” organizing committee chief Lord Burghley proclaimed after the home team had marched past. “A visionary dream has today become a glorious reality.”
The Games were an unmistakable signal that the city’s renaissance, both physical and psychological, was well underway.
“It was great to see how magnificently the people of London had rebounded from the war,” Olympic sprint champion Harrison Dillard observed in “Tales of Gold.”
Courage and rebirth
When the women’s World Cup began in Germany in late June 2011, Japan’s coastal region still was dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake that killed more than 20,000 people and wiped out or damaged more than a million homes.
Before the Japanese team took the field for its quarterfinal match against the hosts, who were two-time defending champions, coach Norio Sasaki showed the players slide-show images of the disaster.
“They touched us deep in our souls,” said midfielder Aya Miyama.
No Asian team ever had won the Cup, and the Japanese hadn’t beaten the Americans in 25 previous outings.
“I believe that something bigger was pulling for this team,” US goalkeeper Hope Solo remarked after Japan twice came from behind to win.
To millions of their countrymen who rose before 4 a.m. to watch the final on TV, Nadeshiko — as the team is known, after the pink carnation symbolizing the graceful but durable ideal of Japanese womanhood — represented their nation overcoming extraordinary adversity.
“I think they brought courage to the whole country,” said prime minister Naoto Kan, who called the team’s triumph “the greatest gift.”
The Saints’ return in 2006 was especially emotional because the Superdome had been a house of horrors in the wake of the hurricane, with thousands of displaced residents living in squalor for a week.
Their homecoming, after nearly 21 months, jammed nearby streets with thousands of fans for several hours before the Monday night kickoff against Atlanta.
“Without putting pressure on us, it was, ‘You’re a symbol of hope and you represent these people who have just been through so much,’ ” said quarterback Drew Brees.
The Saints responded with a 23-3 victory as Steve Gleason blocked a punt on the fourth play that Curtis Deloatch recovered for a touchdown. Later, a statue of the block was erected outside the Stadium above the word “REBIRTH.”
Up from the ashes
When the athletes themselves are the victims, their insistence upon regrouping against all odds inspires their communities. The Man U team lost eight players when its plane crashed in a February snowstorm while taking off from a refueling stop in Munich en route home from a European Cup match in Belgrade.
When the coffins were transported after midnight from Ringway Airport to Old Trafford stadium, more than 100,000 mourners lined the roadways in the rain.
“The disaster touched us all,” said Bert Trautmann, goalkeeper for crosstown rival Manchester City.
The Reds were “the flowers of Manchester,” the Busby Babes, the post-adolescents with whom manager Matt Busby had won consecutive league titles.
“Keep the flag flying, Jimmy,” Busby, who thrice was given last rites, urged assistant Jimmy Murphy from his Munich hospital bed.
The club directors wanted to shut down the season, believing that Man U couldn’t field a competitive team.
“It can be done, it will be done,” insisted Murphy, who brought up reserves and kids and acquired emergency transfers to play alongside the only two survivors who were available. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Man U shut out Sheffield Wednesday in its next match less than two weeks later as 60,000 fans remained in the stands long after the final whistle and not only went on to meet Bolton for the championship but also reached the European semis. “United’s flag is deepest red,” goes the song still sung at Old Trafford. “It shrouded all our Munich dead.”
After Marshall’s entire football team was killed when its plane slammed into a hill just short of the airport while returning in murky weather from a November game at East Carolina, the acting president of the West Virginia school considered canceling the program.
“It would have been so easy to say, ‘That’s it. Let’s don’t do it. It’s too hard to do over again,’ ” quarterback Reggie Oliver later told rivals.com.
But the Thundering Herd cobbled together a team for the following season that included former JV players, freshmen, walk-ons, and athletes from other sports. Then they won their home opener against Xavier, with Oliver throwing for a touchdown on the game’s final play. When the players emerged from the dressing room, they found the stadium still filled.
“They just didn’t want to let go of the moment,” Oliver said.
Marshall won only one more game that autumn, but the record was irrelevant.
After tragedy, the most important thing is to resume. The Boston Marathon will be held for the 118th time on Patriots Day, albeit with enhanced security precautions.
The gun will be fired in Hopkinton, the Red Sox will be playing their traditional morning game at Fenway, the victors will cross the finish line on Boylston Street and be crowned with laurel by the mayor.
The difference this year is that Boston will be everyone’s city.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.