NYC 2012: The Show Mustn’t Go On

With the New York City Marathon just days away, I’m finding it hard to get excited about one of my favorite running events of the year in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the superstorm which devastated the east coast last week, taking lives, stranding millions without power, paralyzing public transportation, flooding and burning homes and leaving entire communities in shambles. One of the hardest hit areas, the New York/New Jersey metro region, is still underwater, in the dark, and mostly inaccessible by way of trains and planes, while thousands of people are scrambling to assess and reverse the damage of one of the worst storms ever to make landfall in this country. Looking at pictures and watching video on various outlets the past few days has been humanizing to say the least.

Travel to New York City this week has also been greatly affected, with thousands of flights being delayed, re-routed or cancelled altogether because of Sandy. As of this writing, LaGuardia International Airport is still closed due to flooding damage, but is slated to offer limited service beginning on Thursday. On a personal level, myself and the rest of the Competitor team had our flights cancelled yesterday, and after evaluating our options, we decided to put the kibosh our trip altogether. (For what it’s worth, the next available flight on our airline would have gotten us into the city at 4:30 AM on Sunday.) I’m sure many others have found themselves having to make similar decisions in the past couple days.

Despite all this, the New York City Marathon is still marching forward mayor Michael Bloomberg announced this afternoon, and the New York Road Runners are making arrangements to hold its annual race on Sunday. The event, which relies on the support of public officials such as the New York City Police and Fire departments, along with the strength of thousands of volunteers, is facing a myriad of logistical challenges which include, but are not limited to accessing the starting area on Staten Island, a flooded finish line, storm damage in Central Park, a mostly inoperable public transit system, as well as travel cancellations and delays for more than half of the field’s anticipated 47,000 entrants, many of those coming from international locations. Even under perfect conditions, staging the event is a logistical headache. Given the current circumstances, however, it’s a nightmare.

New York is a city that has a proven history of encountering tragedy only to unite and overcome it, even under the gravest of situations. I have no doubt that they’ll do so again during these trying times, but staging a marathon this weekend — even the biggest and most recognizable one in the world — while the city it runs through is in the direst of straits, shouldn’t be a priority, and does very little to improve the current situation for many of the 8 million plus people who call the Big Apple home. I’m ready to be ripped apart for what I’m about to write, but the New York City Marathon does not need to happen this Sunday. There are more pressing issues that rightfully deserve the city’s attention, energy and limited resources.

Electing to cancel an event of this magnitude is not an easy decision by any stretch, and some would even argue if it’s advisable or conscionable, but given the current situation in the city it’s a difficult one that must be made for the greater good of New York City and its residents. Period. While there’s a lot at stake here for marathon organizers, athletes, sponsors, vendors, and various others involved with the event, there’s even more at stake for the thousands of people who are still without power, forced out of their homes, can’t get out of their homes or otherwise waiting for assistance to get their lives back in order. As it stands, there are a limited number of public resources such as policeman, firemen and paramedics available to aid the recovery effort, and every single one of them absolutely needs to go toward helping the folks who pay tax dollars to take advantage of them, not to a race that will pay those very same resources to shut down roads and ensure that an event goes off without a hitch.

There have been arguments that hosting the event this weekend will be a much-needed boost to the economy and help increase morale in the city, but given that far less than the anticipated 47,000 runners will actually make it to the event, and those that do will be spending less time (and money) in the city because of travel delays, that dollar amount won’t be nearly what it would be under ordinary circumstances. Runners will always unite and foster an encouraging spirit for one another, especially during trying times, but this showing of support will do little for the millions of folks who will still be dealing with this tragedy well after the masses leave on Sunday night or Monday morning.

I encourage you to put yourself in the shoes of my friend John Volpe, a resident of Hoboken, New Jersey currently stranded in San Diego due to travel cancellations, who is trying to get back to the east coast before the weekend. He told me earlier today that his wife, who is stuck in their house, “has not showered since Monday. We have no power or food to prepare and she has not slept well since then.”

As a runner, a massive fan of sport, and a journalist who was to be in New York this week to cover the race, part of me will be sad if one of the greatest sporting events in the world takes a bye for 2012. I’m disappointed that my fiance will have to wait at least another year to experience the excitement of running the New York City Marathon, a race that’s been on her bucket list for a long time. She made the decision on Tuesday to cancel her flight on Friday, saying, “it just doesn’t feel right.” And you know what, I agree with her. It really just doesn’t feel right to take part in something when there are people in the immediate area struggling to survive, save their houses and put their lives and city back together.

No matter how you cut it, there’s no easy decision here. I know the New York Road Runners and everyone on their fantastic staff are doing everything in their power to put the marathon on this weekend and make it a success, but to what end? And, when all is said and done, what exactly constitutes a success? Once the event is finished, many out-of-town runners will return home, while a lot of New York City residents will still be struggling. If the race is cancelled, many runners — elites and amateurs alike — who have been training for months and dreaming of the Big Apple will be sorely disappointed that their goal race has to be put on hold. But canceling the race isn’t about being unfair to the runners — it’s about being fair to a city and its residents that need every available resource to put itself back together, and for this reason, the show mustn’t go on.

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