New York mayor Michael Bloomberg finally got the message that in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, the New York City Marathon had become an obscenity.
Friday, in the face of blistering criticism, Bloomberg said Sunday's race has been cancelled.
It would have been morally reprehensible to have the marathon go on as planned.
It would have been an act of insensitivity even to run in it.
I am not in New York to assess what all conditions are like on the ground. But, like everyone around the world in our information-saturated era, I have access to the pictures and video and reports of the death, devastation and despair wrought by Sandy.
Nowhere is that despair greater than on Staten Island, where 19 are known – as of now – to have died from storm-related causes, and many residents still are without food, water and heat. To watch these people tell of their plight the past two days is to suffer along with them.
The New York City Marathon begins on Staten Island.
It took far too long for Bloomberg and Mary Wittenberg, chief executive of the race organizers, to understand that the wrong-headed decision to go ahead with the event was an obscene gesture and slap in the face at Staten Islanders – and all other New Yorkers whose lives have been turned upside down by the storm.
By her failure to realize that, Wittenberg had become Witlessberg, no matter that she had the mayor’s irrational and inexplicable imprimatur to proceed.
“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," Bloomberg and 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 we have decided to cancel it.
"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.”
It made no difference that it may have been logistically possible to stage a race that draws nearly 50,000 runners.
And some tried to sell the idea that the race would unite the city the way sports events in New York – including the marathon - did in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
This is not a case of the city (and country) needing a psychological boost in the feeling that life can be normal again, as was necessary after the terrorist attacks. And the 2001 New York Marathon took place 7 1/2 weeks after Sept. 11, not barely five days after a natural disaster.
The marathon may step foot in New York’s five boroughs, but more than half its participants come from elsewhere – an estimated 20,000 from foreign countries. By having the race as planned, you are saying a recreational event for out-of-towners is more important than restoring the necessities of daily life to New Yorkers.
As noted in my tweets Tuesday (twitter@olyphil), the race should have been cancelled then. That would have given anyone coming from outside New York ample time to deal with cancelling hotel reservations and plane flights. And the New York Road Runners should have offered a better deal to anyone who chose not to come than the deal it has made: another entry next year, but you’ll have to pay for that one, and you won’t get a refund on this one.
Wittenberg, paid $500,000 as boss of the running club, should have said: no race this year, all entry fees to charities aiding the recovery in New York, guaranteed entry next year with another payment. She said at a Friday press conference that the NYRR would "be sure to be fair" about compensating entrants but offered no details. By not making the decision Tuesday, she and the mayor allowed many runners who travelled the last three days to waste money on a trip to New York.
But don’t try to sell the lost economic impact argument. Those numbers always are exaggerated, no matter what mega-event is in question.
And I didn't buy the notion that no resources would be diverted from restoring all the services missing in New York to servicing the marathon. Today’s New York Post showed how generators that could provide electricity to hundreds of homes were being used for a marathon media tent in Central Park.
And, you runners, don’t give me the “this was a once-in-a-lifetime-trip” thing.
How do you think that sounded to the families of those who have died? To people who are homeless? Or just waiting in interminable lines for buses or gas?
It sounded the way the celebration of his mother’s wedding to his father’s murderer did to Hamlet when he said, “The funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”
It sounded like thousands of people running roughshod over the needs of people in distress.