Why the Marathon Is the Last Thing New York Needs

New York City Marathoners cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in 2011 Photograph by Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

The deepest wish of those in a disaster zone is to return to normalcy. We long for the restoration of necessities—water, electricity, transportation—and the resumption of the regular routine. The running of the New York City Marathon in 2001, two months after the 9/11 attacks, became a celebration of the city getting back to business—and pleasure—as usual.

This time, as New York and the surrounding region attempt to dry off and rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York Road Runners, which organizes the marathon, have vowed that the race will go on this Sunday. They justify the decision on grounds similar to 2001. Yet the circumstances and timing of this year’s marathon are so different that local citizens, politicians, and many runners themselves are questioning the wisdom of running the race while hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are still without basic necessities.

The marathon course starts on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, winds through Brooklyn and Queens, crosses the Queensboro Bridge, and then cuts through the Upper East Side of Manhattan, taking in a sliver of the Bronx before turning down Fifth Avenue and entering Central Park. Runners will skirt the worst-afflicted neighborhoods but the race will nonetheless tie up bridges and roadways in a city already choked with traffic due to closed subways, flooded tunnels, and the six-square-block no-go zone affected by the dangling construction crane on 57th Street.

The competition usually attracts 47,000 runners from 135 countries and generates nearly $350 million for the city’s economy, according to Mayor Bloomberg. Yet how many runners and how much money can the race pull in this year, with transportation systems paralyzed and airports closed? A typical logistical problem: Traditionally, thousands of runners get to the Staten Island starting line by taking a ferry from Battery Park. But even if the Staten Island Ferry were to resume operations, the Metropolitan Transit Authority has already announced that subway service to lower Manhattan is suspended. It remains unclear how runners who can’t find alternate transportation to Battery Park will make it to the start.

A more pressing question: Does it make sense for several hundred police officers to be diverted to secure the course when much of the city still doesn’t have functioning traffic lights—and looting has been reported in at least three boroughs? All this is causing many runners to reconsider. “Yeah, I’m not running the NYC Marathon and I’m not the only one,” runner Chris Dunst posted on his blog. “There is no way the city is going to rebound from the storm in just a few days.”

Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro was aghast when he heard the marathon was to be run as scheduled. “We have two feet of mud where you used to be able to walk. We have boats in the middle of streets … And we have lost lives. And they want to hold a race?”

Other sporting events, including the opening-night NBA game between the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets—the first professional sports event to be played in Brooklyn since 1957—have been postponed.

After 9/11, the National Football League postponed that Sunday’s games, tacking them on to the end of the regular season. Then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the key factor in making his decision was his predecessor Pete Rozelle’s decision to play the games as scheduled the Sunday after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Rozelle always told Tagliabue that was his single greatest regret as commissioner, citing the empty stands and dispirited players.

It was too soon, Rozelle discovered, for a return to normalcy.

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