8:51 PM EST, November 4, 2012
I cry at marathons.
For those who have read my columns over many years, this may or may not come as a surprise. For some, who are sure I am an insensitive lout, this may come as a fabrication.
It's true. I do cry at marathons.
I do not cry for the 2012 New York Marathon and most certainly not for the New York Road Runners' misguided president and CEO.
I cried at the 2004 Athens Olympics during the marathon that started in — where else? — Marathon after an Irish protester named Cornelius Horan tackled the leader Vanderlei de Lima four miles before the finish line. It cost the Brazilian any chance of winning the gold medal. Yet when de Lima, who never complained, entered Panathinaiko Stadium, the home of the 1896 Olympics, he joyfully spread his arms like an airplane flying into a sea of crowd noise that welcomed him. He won the bronze medal, he won the seldom-awarded Pierre de Coubertin Medal for sportsmanship and he won the hearts of sportsmen around the world.
I cried at the 2012 Boston Marathon after interviewing our wounded veterans, guys missing arms and legs, who had just completed the 26.2 mile race. The sight of three dozen of them, uniformly bent over their cycles, chests heaving, bodies spent, it was an unforgettable portrait of the brave.
My tears were never for race victory or defeat or world-record times. I cry because at no event is the human spirit, timeless and unbreakable in its resolve, better on display. Marathons are a most powerful unifying force.
That's why Mayor Michael Bloomberg's initial instincts to push forward with the New York Marathon after Hurricane Sandy are understandable. New York is the greatest city in the world. As we saw in 2001, New York bows to no insidious force, man or nature. What I will never understand is the insanity that allowed Bloomberg and the NYRR under Mary Wittenberg to continue their delusion for days before finally canceling the race Friday.
Bloomberg's initial instincts to push on should have dissolved after 10 minutes of logical thought. He should have realized that while his great city does not bow, does not break, it would need to take a step back to regain its strength.
How could he have missed so badly? Did the mayor fail to grasp the pain in Staten Island and Breezy Point? Did he fail to grasp the pain at Broad Channel and through the Rockaways? Had he overestimated the quickness of his city's ability to rebound from the devastation?
To start the marathon in Staten Island, where 19 souls were lost, where stories of children being swept from their parents will forever haunt his city, was a slap in the face of human decency. I talked to some New Yorkers, know some people in law enforcement there. Nobody was telling me they should have run the race.
A friend of my wife's cousin died in his sleep when a fallen tree crashed through a window. Stories of sorrow and hardship abound. Here in Connecticut, virtually all of us know someone struck by Sandy's wrath. New Yorkers are tough, tough and resilient as they come, but the thought of hundreds of them standing in gas lines for generators while runners pass in front of cheering crowds strikes me as especially unfeeling. The thought of bystanders handing out oranges to runners while some of their fellow New Yorkers are scrapping for heat and a hot meal is sickening. Until the tri-state area if fully back on its feet, the cheers should be reserved for those who aid the afflicted.
It is called perspective, and Wittenberg's lack of it is why I echo Mike Vaccaro's column in the New York Post that she should be replaced immediately as head of the NYRR. Forget for a moment whether Bloomberg was pushing her or she was guiding Bloomberg in delaying the inevitable. It is in the NYRR's letter to the 47,000 expected to run the race that the organization and Wittenberg come off as heartless and resentful.
"It became increasingly apparent that the people of our city and the surrounding tri-state area were still struggling to recover from the damage wrought by the recent extreme weather conditions," the letter says. "That struggle, fueled by the resulting extensive and growing media coverage antagonistic to the marathon and its participants, created conditions that raised concern for the safety of both those working to produce the event and its participants.
"While holding the race would not have required diverting resources from the recovery effort, it became clear that the apparent widespread perception to the contrary had become the source of controversy and division.
Wow. The NYRR included Connecticut with its "tri-state" mention, so count me in — blaming the media for being "antagonistic to the marathon and its participants," is a sick and demented notion. The media only wishes that it bullied Bloomberg and the NYRR into doing something swifter than any visiting Kenyan. The media reacted to the voice of the people. The vox populi was heeded. Uncommon journalistic valor didn't put an end to the 2012 marathon. Common decency did.
Wittenberg is a former cheerleader and elite marathoner. She is an unrelenting promotional force for her event and for distance running. And make no mistake, those who love to run convert with an almost religious zealotry. I know. I ran distances when I was younger. The odd part of it is I came to hate doing it so much that ultimately bad habits and lack of exercise led to multiple heat attacks and open-heart surgery. One item on my bucket list is to run the New York Marathon, and I have come to appreciate people like Wittenberg urging people to run as life savers.
Yet when an organization or an organization's leader becomes so insular in its thinking that it become a captive of their own quasi-religion, well, that's plain wrong. The pain that competitors felt because they already paid for plane tickets , reserved hotel rooms or raised money for charity and, oh, God, what about the restaurants and hotels and tourism … that pain is nothing compared to the families of more than 40 people who died in New York City and the 40,000 New Yorkers who need to be rehoused.
People have died. People are without heat and power.
This was not a sporting event at a single site. And while specific resources may not have been diverted for the marathon, those giant rented generators in Central Park powering race functions while others shivered in the cold isn't a unifying force. And what of all the police volunteering off-hours to help folks in storm recovery instead working the marathon?
Remembe de Lima? Forget one crackpot tackling a competitor. Here's one wager there would have be several protesters trying to block the race Sunday. They would be wrong in action, of course, but understandable in spirit.
I cry at marathons. I do not cry for the 2012 New York Marathon, nor for Mary Wittenberg, who turned unity into disunity.
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