NEW YORK – For the first time in its 42-year history, the New York City Marathon was cancelled suddenly on Friday night when it became apparent to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and New York Road Runners President Mary Wittenberg that the race was becoming more divisive than unifying in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
“We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event – as meaningful as this is – 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,” said Bloomberg and Wittenberg in a joint statement released at 5:30 p.m. Eastern, less than 48 hours before the race.
Asked what finally changed the mayor’s mind, “I don’t think there was one tipping point,” said Howard Wolfson, the city’s Deputy Mayor for Government Affairs and Communications.
By the end of a 45-minute press conference late on Friday, it was apparent that the cancellation was largely intended to silence the barrage of criticism from the public, the media – and most significantly of all – the victims.
“Nobody wants to cause any more pain to people who have suffered so much already,” Wolfson said. “It was clear that the people who are suffering the most were looking upon this as a source of unhappiness.”
The storm hit New York on Monday night. On Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg gave the race the official go-ahead, saying it could be held safely. By Thursday, preparations and contingency plans were rapidly moving forward and the elite field was arriving. By Thursday night, New York Road Runners announced a $2.6 million recovery fund that was sure to grow, and the potential benefits of holding the race were starting to become tangible even as the death toll slowly rose to 41, power outages continued to affect a half million people in the area, and transportation for large chunks of the city remained in shambles.
By Friday morning, the energy in upper Manhattan was palpable. Runners, many of whom entered the race to try to raise millions of dollars for charity, jammed the sidewalks along the perimeter of Central Park to get in their last training miles during the morning rush hour. Every one of the elite athletes who had flown in from six continents expressed their concern for the victims during two hours of roundtable interviews. Most of the banners along the route had been hung. Central Park was scheduled to open on Saturday, and the Staten Island Ferry was hours away from resuming service for the first time since the storm.
Still, the voices of the victims were growing louder, and politicians who had initially been supportive of the marathon began to sour on the idea. Negativity on social media and in the press had also been on a steady crescendo.
Staten Island, where the marathon traditionally starts, was one of the hardest-hit areas of the city.
Organizers had considered moving the start. They had also discussed holding an elite-only marathon, or making it a 10-mile race.
“Every option was discussed,” Wittenberg said.
“We are really sorry to the runners,” she added.
“From the beginning, the whole idea was to help New York through this marathon. We began early trying to minimize the impact. All week it’s been about healing and really supporting New Yorkers. What happened – and this [wasn’t] helping – there actually became this animosity toward runners who chose to come. There was a really unhealthy dynamic.
“And there’s a whole other side to this. Yesterday at the expo, people were saying, ‘Mary, thanks for going on. I’ve overcome breast cancer. Running this race saved my life.’ There are tens of thousands of those. We want to thank them. We want to tell them we’re sorry, and we ask for their understanding.”
Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.