With Love: Postpone the Damn Marathon

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.]

[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket). Receive his column every week by emailing dave@edgeofsports.com. Contact him at edgeofsports@gmail.com.]

6 Reader Comments | Add a comment

The marathon deserves respect too.

I was really sad when I saw all the hate being spewed at the marathon this morning on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. I hope every single person in New York hating on the marathon is volunteering in the recovery somewhere. The fact is that the marathon is a part of life in NYC. We're "sparing" thousands of first responders to make sure that people can get to their jobs in the city. You think all these people work in hospitals??? Of course not, they work in marketing, the arts, entertainment, finance... are these industries more critical than the marathon? I'm a teacher, and I was pulled away from serving people with special needs who have been displaced from their homes so that I can prepare my school for students to come back and learn algebra next week. Is algebra more critical than the marathon? The city has determined that we have the resources to run the marathon. They cancelled the Halloween parade because we didn't have enough resources. We should be pulling together around the marathon, one of the enduring symbols of the unbeatable community that is New York.


I too attended a few city marathons, and it's a great city event, but going through with it right now is indefensible. To host a sporting event that requires police, fire department, and paramedics when many of your citizens still have no power or potable drinking water goes beyond callous. This borders on Louis XVI-era Paris.

That's very inspiring, Scott.

It's also a load. NYC's spirit and identity are not dependent on "enduring symbols." Bloomberg's rationale for persisting with this marathon is to placate the poor visitors and tourists who have already booked flights and travel arrangements, and put money into the city's economy.

It's not that such a thing is callous. It's illogical. In disaster relief efforts for the tsunami and in Haiti in recent years, even the well-intentioned volunteers have actually done more harm than good just by coming to the scene. Now imagine all the logistical expenses of visitors without the slightly offsetting volunteer spirit and you'll have this marathon. While the entire city did not get leveled, one borough did and will take a good while to rebuild. If even one person dies for lack of emergency treatment during the marathon, it is a bad decision.


The marathon is cancelled. Everyone is realizing how hard this recovery will be.


Callous Bloomberg & Marathon

Contrary to the assumption by Aaron, it is not "illogic" but actual callousness. Bloomberg is one of the cruelest, most contemptible callous people in New York City, and that's going some distance.

As a resident of NYC, I can say that the "rescue" efforts of the city were disgraceful, despite prior warning of how bad the storm would be. Food and water assistance did not even begin until--I quote Bloomberg--"approximately 3 pm today". "Today" was Thursday, Nov 1. Including Chinatown and the Lower East Side--hardly inaccessible to agencies in Manhattan.

The same occurred in the last bad snow storm. And after Sept 11, when Bloomberg spent more than $20 million of "recovery funds" fighting health care claims by rescue workers, and proudly announced he'd continue doing so.

During all of these events, people have died not solely due to disaster, but to poor planning and incompetence on the part of politician decisions and agencies charged with providing aid.

Sandy death toll: 98 so far.

Scott: There is NO single "unified" community in NYC, and the differing treatment of poor and wealthy communities has been extreme in this disaster. To hold the marathon and divert resources is a slap in the face of those for whom there has yet to be any assistance whatsoever.

The "poor tourists and visitors" do not have primacy of suffering in this instance; New York residents do. Any tourists/visitors already here always have the option to rise to the occasion and assist rescue efforts.

My Wife had a great idea

While the old and infirm are stranded on upper floors because elevators are not working, an opportunity presents itself to the most fit and energetic people now entering the city: instead of diverting their energy toward a run for glory, perhaps a more meaningful exertion of this energy could be found in giving a spell of relief to the very less fit who are now providing life's necessities to the stranded by their labored crawling up and down stairways, purely out of concern for them.

Who better to provide this life sustaining care to the City than marathon runners? And what could be more in the spirit of the original Marathon?

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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 dave@edgeofsports.com.
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