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Should The New York City Marathon Still Happen?

New York City Mayor Bloomberg had planned all week to move forward with Sunday's marathon, but after receiving much criticism, finally decided to call things off.

The show must go on, but maybe not all the time.

There's been a lot of controversy this week over New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to move forward with the ING New York City Marathon this Sunday, culminating in the New York Post cover today depicting several generators currently resting in Central Park while hundreds of thousands in the city still remain without power.

At the race's start on Staten Island — the hardest-hit borough of New York City — Hurricane Sandy demolished homes and left almost 65% of the roughly 470,000 residents on the island without power. On Thursday morning, Staten Island Borough President Jim Molinaro was in in disbelief over Bloomberg's decision to run a marathon through his ravaged home.

"My God. What we have here is terrible, a disaster. If they want to race, let them race with themselves. This is no time for a parade. A marathon is a parade," he said in an announcement. Later that evening, host organization New York Road Runners (NYRR) CEO Mary Wittenberg went on NY1 news to announce that they plan to donate $2.62 million to Sandy relief from their funds as well as personal pledges.

But Bloomberg and NYRR still seem unfazed by the logistical challenges posed by Sandy's wrath — public transportation to the race's start on Staten Island will be difficult (runners who had signed up for "official transportation" to take the Staten Island Ferry to the start were reassigned to buses leaving from Midtown Manhattan), and the final six or so miles of the race are through Central Park, which remains closed.* Bloomberg seems to be running (pun intended) under the assumption that things will be, relatively speaking, back to normal by Sunday, with power scheduled to be restored to lower Manhattan today.

Both Bloomberg and Wittenberg seem to be banking on the emotional connection between disaster and triumph — the George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at the World Series after September 11th–type moment. “The Marathon has always been a special day for New Yorkers as a symbol of the vitality and resiliency of this city,” said Wittenberg in a statement.

"I was all set for running the marathon until yesterday, when I went to Coney Island — I had no idea it was quite so bad," Kai MacMahon, a conflicted runner, told me. "And the thought of there being search parties less than a mile from the actual start line...I don’t know what I’m going to do."

Pictures of the destruction on Staten Island.

New York Times sports writer Lynn Zinser is aghast at the thought of police officers or resources being diverted to the marathon, especially after Bloomberg was quick to cancel the Nets vs. Knicks opener at the Barclays Center scheduled for Thursday night. "For some reason, the uplifting value of the New York City Marathon, however, is so off the charts in Bloomberg World that nothing trumps diverting countless police and sanitation resources to marathon duty, even when parts of the metropolitan area lie in ruins and the city is mired in transportation hell," she writes.

Bloomberg, however, said in a press conference Wednesday that none of the city's resources would be taken away to be put toward the marathon, and that much of the organizational efforts are through private companies hired by NYRR. Still, it's hard to justify when help is needed elsewhere.

"You cannot spare a policeman, you cannot spare a first responder to stand on a street corner to police the marathon," WFAN sports talk radio host Mike Francesa said Thursday, and ESPN analyst Darren Rovell tweeted:

A nationwide poll on ESPN, however, reveals completely different sentiments about Mayor Bloomberg's decision to run the marathon — 64% are in favor, compared with only 36% who are against it (out of a total 67,000 people surveyed as of Friday).

Granted, the respondents are ESPN readers and largely sports fanatics — those who understand what it means to train painfully for months on timed-to-the-day schedules that would be totally thrown off by a postponement of this marathon. For professional runners, the prize winnings offer a significant source of income, and any potential rerouting of the course would mean it wasn't a "certified" marathon — rendering times and scores useless.

"There's only so much we can do for communities without power," said Jen Tibangin, a paralegal in New York City who will run her 15th marathon this Sunday. "I feel badly for [those without power], but I don’t think they would have wanted the marathon to be cancelled just because they don’t have electricity."

Those in favor of the marathon point out that it's nationally televised, something that hasn't happened since 1993 and that presents an opportunity for increased exposure (and the potential for even more relief donations) should ESPN use the marathon to emphasize the severity of situation in many places, such as Staten Island.

The marathon already brings in around $340 million to the city, and Bloomberg has made it clear that the economic advantages for small businesses and tourism are important to the city.

Wittenberg, on the other hand, assured New Yorkers otherwise. "There is no profit motive here. Our only motive as an organization is to elevate the health and well-being of the entire community through running," she said last night in an interview with NY1.

From the participants' perspectives, the utter lack of communication from NYRR or any indication of how this marathon will happen IN THREE DAYS is both perplexing and extremely frustrating. Since Monday, there have been only two e-mail updates sent to runners, and one of them was about how best to pose for pictures. The other included no useful information other than the fact that the race is still happening.

The e-mail, and their infrequently updated website and "social media" (two tweets since Sunday) simply says:

There will be substantial modifications to the logistics and operations of the race, including the transportation plan, due to the impact of the storm. We continue to work with the city to adjust our marathon planning. Please stay tuned for more important daily updates on this site, through e-mail, and via social media.

Still, the issue of getting runners to Staten Island feels trivial in comparison to making sure those currently on Staten Island are safe and sheltered. And though there are probably some whose lives have been devastated by Sandy, who would look at the marathon as a distraction, something to look forward to, many are adamant that it'd be better for this event not to happen at all.

"I can’t decide if it’s inspirational or disrespectful," said MacMahon, who's now one of thousands who will be running a very fine 26.2-mile line come Sunday.


*Central Park will open Saturday at 8 a.m.

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