Being born in raised in New York City and I deeply understand the local importance of the NY Marathon. Growing up, we used to watch the “biggest race on earth” from the street, handing out drinks to the brave souls on the 26-mile trek. The night before, my mother's friends would have parties where shaggy haired joggers would drink gallons of water and eat plates of plain pasta in preparation. In hushed tones, these glowing adults would tell us kids about Alberto Salazar, Bill Rodgers, and Grete Waitz, and their near-mythic ability to master the marathon. It’s an event dear to the hearts of New Yorkers, a tender tradition in a city defined by constant change. It also, without question or delay, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, should be postponed.
Most of my family and friends in this world still live within the city borders. All are safe and unharmed but that doesn't mean Sandy left them undamaged. My mom is sofa-surfing because her building is without power. My buddy Alex may have lost his job because it's taking four hours to get through the Lincoln Tunnel. My friends from Staten Island feel like they "want to die" after hearing about the two toddlers pulled from their mother and into the flood. This is no time for a race.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg justifed a "business as usual" approach to running the race by saying simply, “The city is a city where we have to go on.” But this isn’t a psychological issue of people needing to “move on” from the week’s tragedy. Hundreds of thousands, like my mother, have no power. Public transportation is a nightmare and the death toll is still climbing. My friend Anthony from Brooklyn called me up this morning just to vent, saying, “They are still pulling bodies out of people’s homes. How can you divert even one emergency personnel worker for the sake of the marathon? It’s beyond wrong.”
George Hirsch, the chairman of the board of the New York Road Runners which puts on the NY Marathon, said, “I understand the controversy completely and respect all the views on this, but any decision that was made by the mayor would have been controversial and to call off the race would have been equally as controversial. By Sunday afternoon, there won’t be any controversy. People will view it as an early step in the city’s recovery.”
It’s difficult to imagine how this can be “a step in the city’s recovery” if the act of putting on the race drains any resources from efforts to make sure residents are safe. Simon Ressner is a lieutenant at the New York Fire Department and a marathon runner. I’ll give his perspective a lot more weight than that of Mike Bloomberg and George Hirsch. Ressner said to the New York Times, that emergency personnel are deeply stressed, covering everything from their typical duties to making sure stray fires aren’t sparked as hundreds line up at gas stations to fill cans and containers. “I’ve written two e-mails to the Road Runners saying, ‘Just postpone it'", he said. “That way, you’ll still get the money, you’ll still have a high-profile event, but it would show that you’re being sensitive. But now, we’re not going to show the world we’re resilient, we’re going to show them we’re selfish.”
The marathon, per tradition, launches from Staten Island, where devastation may be the most acute. Thousands have lost power, entire streets are closed off, and 19 deaths have already been reported. This is made worse by the sense among residents that they are the “forgotten borough” left to die while Manhattan's Uptown was left with barely a scratch. Resident Nicole Malliotakis said to CBS news, "We are far from fine and the fact that the mayor wants to have a marathon this weekend when we have people who lost either their lives or lost their entire house. I mean, it's unbelievable to me."
It is unbelievable. It’s unbelievable that the NY Marathon, instead of unifying the city, is now just another example of how savage New York's inequalities have become. Public housing projects are at constant risk of flooding. The risk of disease being spread through open sewage lines is rampant. But emergency officials, in short supply, will be pulled away to make sure that runner who cramp up around Pulaski Bridge, have sufficient fluids. I still remember fondly the shaggy hippies getting ready to run the Marathon back in the early 1980s. I remember them fondly not because they could run 26 miles, but the values of community and fair play they believed that the marathon exemplified. There is no question in my mind that they would stand with a basic notion of humanity before they would stand with this race. It’s a humanity that Michael Bloomberg seems to sorely lack.
[There is an online petition to postpone the marathon. Sign it here.]
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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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