NYC Mayor And NYRR Leadership Deserve Support
Nobody wanted it to be this way. Everyone wanted New York's first Sunday in November to be as it always is: a glorious, bracing fall day, the city's harbor filled with water-spurting tugboats, and tens of thousands of runners eagerly poised to explode over the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to begin a five-borough odyssey to the Central Park finish line. But the meteorological gods had other plans.
Less than a week before the New York City Marathon's race day, Hurricane Sandy -- or "The Frankenstorm" as it came to be known -- unleashed a furious attack on the East Coast. Although the approaching storm was widely broadcast and the inhabitants and the safety forces of the eastern seaboard were provided ample time to prepare and -- in some cases -- to vacate, few were able to withstand the actual ferocity of the hurricane-force winds and relentless lashing rains that Sandy delivered to the New Jersey Shore line and the greater metropolitan New York area.
As Sandy uncorked its fury, New Yorkers did what New Yorkers always do -- they dug in their heels and toughed it out. Two days later, as the storm blew beyond the city and later tapered off, city inhabitants and its elected leadership made preliminary post-storm assessments. The devastation was horrific, to be sure: power outages plagued millions; storm surges of record magnitude wreaked havoc, crippling homes, businesses, and entire neighborhoods; and inner-city transportation was rendered chaotic or inoperable.
Early in race week, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York's stoic, indefatigable leader, was eager to move the city forward, beyond the immediate aftermath of Sandy. He and the New York Road Runner Club envisioned the upcoming New York City Marathon as a way to demonstrate the fortitude of City's inhabitants and to galvanize the community with an event that annually promotes unity, cultivates civic pride, and offers to the world an inside glimpse of the heartiness of its citizenry and the resiliency of this special city. The Marathon, the Mayor announced, would go on as planned.
Initial reaction to the Mayor's bold proclamation was generally met with admiration. Early voices endorsed the notion that the City would rise above the weather-induced calamity, spit in the eye of this setback, and demonstrate to the community and the world that New York can take an enormous punch and come back strong. Many likened such an approach to the running of the 2001 NYC Marathon -- which took place less than two months after the 9/11 attacks. References were even made to the 1972 Olympics -- when the marathon was run in Munich only days after 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed in a terrorist attack.
But as race week in New York progressed, more detailed information about Sandy's devastation emerged: the hurricane damage was more extensive than originally thought; the timeframes for the anticipated resumption of an array of city services lengthened; the scope of resident suffering was revealed to be more serious and more widespread; and the magnitude of the type of realistic and effective overall relief effort that would be needed was approaching overwhelming proportions. Suddenly, the concept of running the New York City Marathon as a sort of glorious symbol of the city's indomitable spirit and its triumph over adversity -- viewed as a noble undertaking just days before -- was subject to rightful questioning. And that questioning soon ignited an impassioned conversation -- on social media and elsewhere -- of the pros and cons of staging the race.
The City and the NYRR found itself in uncharted waters, unable to draw upon past experience within the sport to help guide it in making an appropriate decision in this unprecedented circumstance. As the hours before race day were melting away, and as the chorus of influential voices on both sides grew larger and louder, Mary Wittenberg, President and CEO of the NYRR, announced late Friday that the race would not be held, would not be postponed -- it would be cancelled. In acknowledging the fevered pitch taken on by the raging debate, the NYRR posted a statement on its website that explained that "Neither the NYRR nor the City could allow a controversy over the Marathon to result in a dangerous situation or to distract attention from all of the critically important work that is being done to help New York City recover from the storm."
Anger, relief, disappointment, frustration, sadness, and vindication are but some of the emotions evoked by Friday's announcement. All are understandable reactions to the cancellation. But, in the end, it must be appreciated that the City and the NYRR were placed in a very difficult and unprecedented situation and were called upon to make an extremely critical decision that would have implications beyond the parameters of the race itself. It is tough -- and perhaps impossible -- to quarrel with the decision to cancel the race, to eliminate distraction from the relief effort, and to quell an unnecessary controversy. To place the accelerated relief effort to aid more than 2 million people in distress ahead of a sporting event hosting 47,000 runners in the same devastated city seems like the appropriate ordering of priorities.
The opportunity for unbridled expression in this country is a valued, time-honored and protected right. And while everyone is entitled to his or her own view of this complicated, multi-faceted situation, the Mayor and the NYRR have earned the right to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be accorded a certain deference in the judgment they were called upon to exercise under trying and unprecedented conditions.
It would appear that a presumption of good faith to which both the City and the NYRR are rightfully entitled would not currently appear to be misplaced. Race leadership has lost little time in transforming what could easily have been viewed as an overwhelming disappointment for the organization into a unique opportunity to redeploy its considerable influence, organization and resources in a way that can aid storm recovery in a significant way. The NYC Marathon website already invites its runners -- indeed all of its visitors -- to support the "Race To Recover" Relief Effort by supplying clear directions on how to make text-driven contributions.
A humanitarian act like this from the NYRR -- assembled and promoted even in the midst of the frenzied race cancellation weekend -- represents a positive first step. But as would be expected and as the NYRR likely knows and understands, more proactive initiatives will need to be forthcoming in the days and weeks ahead. It is true that the race cancellation as a result of Sandy's wrath will undoubtedly cause the NYRR to endure significant unanticipated economic consequences and sustain large unplanned expenses. But those unbudgeted costs, not likely subject to current quantification, will be offset in some measure by certain cost-savings arising from the race cancellation. And so the race organization must challenge itself -- in much the same way it expects it marathoners to challenge themselves on race day -- to do even more. Additional initiatives -- such as redirecting additional amounts of its own revenues to the relief effort or developing and implementing a procedure that would allow disappointed 2012 entrants to gain prompt and assured entry into the 2013 race while receiving some sort of discount or refund, a portion of which runners could elect to direct to the relief effort -- would be welcomed further action. Such overt steps would also further signify that the trust and support they seek and likely will receive -- from the marathoners in particular and the greater community in general -- has not been misplaced.
Deeper thought into the consequences of the cancellation suggest that many matters yet to emerge will have to be addressed: legal and public relations issues surrounding entry fee forfeiture under circumstances where event participation is precluded due to no fault of the athlete; appearance fees for elite athletes; "claims" elite athletes may assert regarding lost revenue opportunities; and "claims" by all sorts of entities that provide funding for the event, from high-profile sponsors to fee-paying expo vendors -- to name a few.
The City of New York and the NYRR will be left to sort out all of the consequences of Hurricane Sandy and the subsequent race cancellation. As we look back on the events that have occurred and the actions that have been taken since Sandy bombarded the East Coast, those of us who love the sport will have plenty of opportunities -- and the benefit of perspective -- to judge and to comment upon the decisions that leaders had to make in real time. It is often said -- and with justification -- that hindsight is 20/20. But in this situation, that sort of retrospective vision will likely prove to be most useful if viewed through the lens of tolerance and understanding.