NYC
11/02/2012 09:40 pm ET

New York City Marathon Cancellation: Why The Race Was Called Off

NEW YORK -- The show was supposed to go on. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a midday press conference Friday that the ING New York City Marathon would lift New Yorkers' spirits following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, much like it did after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

But the anti-marathon backlash rose Friday as the death toll in New York reached 41, the city's the transit system remained crippled and the storm's economic damage was estimated at $50 billion. The marathon's starting line was to have been on hard-hit Staten Island, where homes and lives were lost this week.

Politicians were objecting, race participants decided to protest instead instead of run, and a Facebook group in favor of canceling the race quickly gained 50,000 members -- about the number of runners registered for the marathon.

A hotel owner in Staten Island decided he would close his doors to runners and give shelter to those without power and water.

Late Friday afternoon, the city decided to cancel the marathon.

“Its clear that the best thing for New York and the best thing for the marathon and the future is, unfortunately, to move on,” said Mary Wittenberg, director of the marathon. “This isn’t the year or the time to run it. It’s crushing and really difficult. One of the toughest decisions we ever made.”

Since 1970, the marathon has been a feel-good event for New Yorkers that seems to bring out the best in people: the lines of revelers holding up signs along First Avenue in Manhattan, the fans who camp out at the more deserted stretches, the 80-year-olds who still manage to cross the finish line.

It's also an event that has historically meant large sums of money for the city. In 2011, the economic impact of the race was estimated at $340 million, with an additional $34 million going to charities. This year, economic impact was predicted at $350 million.

But after the storm, people started doing the math: 93,600 bottles of water; 30,000 energy bars; 40,000 cups of coffee, 1,700 portable toilets. That was on list of resources slated for the Staten Island start line alone, according to New York Road Runners, the organization that operates the marathon. In years past, the marathon has also included 6,000 volunteers, some of whom are medically trained.

The New York Post calculated that two marathon power generators running 24 hours a day in Central Park could power 400 homes. The lights may be back on in much of Lower Manhattan, but 700,000 New Yorkers have been without electricity for days, making the city an eerie version of itself.

Several city agencies either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for the number of personnel, vehicles and the amount of resources that would have been put towards the marathon this year.

Protestors said the city should focus resources on storm recovery, not the marathon. Still, some said it was unlikely that emergency repsonders would have been drained by the race. And there's a case to be made for the event's powerful economic effects. Thousands of people from around the country and the world come to New York to run the marathon and to watch. They would have been an enlivening force on businesses that have taken a hit in the last week.

“I don’t think that many resources are diverted in the sense that something constructive by emergency personnel that could be done would have been done at the time," Jim Diffley, senior director and chief regional economist at IHS Global Insight, told The Huffington Post. "I don’t see that as an issue, frankly. I can’t imagine that the marathon drains that much."

Diffley noted that the marathon brings people from out of town, including many who are affluent and stay in the city for multiple days.

But Mark Vitner, a senior economist at Wells Fargo, told The Huffington Post that while the marathon would potentially be good for the city's morale, it wasn't necessary to boost the economy.

“Right now, we just need to get things fixed up and running again so the economy can grow,” Vitner said.

Christine Hickey, spokewoman for Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center -- which sponsors Fred's Team and benefits from the marathon -- said that the organization understood the sensitivity surrounding the issues of holding the race.

"We have 818 runners, which raised about $3.6 million," Hickey said. "We've had 35 cancellations due to the hurricane, not due to the controversy."

In the end, the city changed its mind about the marathon. No one said it had to do with a lack of resources for those in need. Instead, a joint statement from the mayor's office and New York Road Runners explained that those in charge wanted the race to remain a force to unite people:

While holding the race would not require diverting resources from the recovery effort, it is clear that it has become the source of controversy and division. The marathon has always brought our city together and inspired us with stories of courage and determination. We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it. We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event -- even one as meaningful as this -- 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.

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