Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Show Will Go On in NYC: Inspirational or Disrespectful?

As New York City, New Jersey and many parts of the northeast continue battling the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy, Mayor Bloomberg confirmed on Wednesday that the iconic NYC Marathon will go on this Sunday. According to the race's website, this year's event will be held in honor of the "city of New York, the victims of the hurricane, and their families." Race organizers have also made a number of modifications to the schedule, cancelling the opening ceremony, the Dash to the Finish Line 5k, and revising the race's cancellation policy.

But the Mayor's commitment to proceed with the marathon - an event that he says "epitomizes the spirit of New York City, the vitality, the tenacity, the determination of New Yorkers" - has brought on a spirited debate as to whether the decision was the right thing to do. "Right" of course is always subjective and there are many unresolved moral questions at play. Is is disrespectful to those who lost their homes or loved ones? Is the NYC Marathon "just a sporting event?" Could the resources devoted to the race be better used in the relief effort? Do sporting events provide some sort of coping mechanism - a way to escape reality, if only for a couple hours?

Mario Fraioli, of Competitor running magazine, argued the "show mustn't go on." Describing how the race could provide a "much-needed boost to the city's economy and help increase morale," there are unavoidable risks with staging the event, which has roughly 47,000 registered runners (though many will undoubtedly not to make the trip). Still early in the recovery efforts, the argument is that the massive logistics and human resources needed to pull off the race could be better used elsewhere.

"There are a limited number of public resources, such as policemen, 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 work to ensure that an event goes off without a hitch."

However, other articles are quick to point out that the race is now heavily relying on volunteers and has established ways for participants and volunteers to donate to the relief effort. Even more, however, marathons, and even endurance events more broadly, have deep meaning with personal stories for many who do them. As one runner of this weekend's race put it, she is running "because on Sunday I’m not just running to affirm my survivorship and fund-raise for a cause I passionately believe in. I’m running to put my feet in all five boroughs of this wounded city I love with everything in my heart. I’m running to be out among my friends and neighbors and my children."

Whichever point of view you come from - and both are valid and important to consider - the debate about whether to hold the NYC Marathon this weekend reminded me of a similar debate that took place around the 2001 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC. Yes, the race took place more than a month after the 9/11 attacks (whereas the NYC race is less than a week), but I can't help but wonder what is going through the heads of the runners in this photo, running past the Pentagon and the site of tragedy just a few weeks before.

We all have different ways of processing and coping. If this weekend's marathon can provide a solace for thousands of New Yorkers and others from the region during a time of struggle, uncertainty and hardship, maybe that's it's contribution to the relief effort.

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