Is Mayor Bloomberg right to keep the New York City marathon on for Sunday?


Workers assemble the finish line for the New York City Marathon in New York's Central Park, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012. The New York City Marathon is on Sunday, with many logistical questions to be answered. (Richard Drew/AP)
November 2, 2012

It was a decision with no easy answers. Depending on who you ask, Bloomberg’s call to keep the marathon on is either a stroke of leadership brilliance that will inspire people with the city’s resilience and raise money for hard-hit businesses or an insensitive move that could divert police and other resources while ignoring the suffering of those who’ve lost so much from the storm.

The marathon, as anyone knows who’s witnessed it, is indeed an event that brings New Yorkers together. People spill into the streets, cheering runners and toasting them with drinks from the sidewalk. Runners raise millions for various charities, and the marathon’s organizers will donate $1 million to the recovery fund and a reported $1.5 million in additional pledges from sponsors. Bloomberg has said the marathon will go on because “New York has to show that we are here, that we are going to recover” and that the race will “give people something to cheer about" after a "dismal week."

But many believe the race shouldn’t be held Sunday. A Facebook page called “Cancel the 2012 NYC Marathon” has been started and, at this writing, had more than 40,000 “likes.” A number of officials in New York are disagreeing with the move, from city public advocate Bill de Blasio, an initial supporter of the decision who changed his mind (“we need to postpone the marathon and keep our focus where it belongs: on public safety and vital relief operations”) to Councilman James Oddo, who represents parts of Staten Island and Brooklyn (“If they take one first responder from Staten Island to cover this marathon, I will scream," he tweeted. "We have people with no homes and no hope right now.")

And plenty are scoffing at the idea that the inspiration that could result from the event will outweigh the potential costs. As Lynn Zinser wrote for the New York Times, “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.”

Bloomberg defended his decision Friday, saying that the marathon would use “a relatively small amount of Sanitation Department resources” and that there were plenty of police officers who were available. Power is expected to be restored in lower Manhattan on Saturday. Bloomberg also mentioned former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s decision to hold the marathon in the aftermath of Sept. 11. “I think Rudy had it right,” Bloomberg said. “You keep going; you have to do things. You can grieve, you can cry, you can laugh, all at the same time. That’s what human beings are good at.”

Maybe so. The difference, of course, is that Sept. 11 happened nearly two months before the marathon; the distance between Sandy’s impact and this year’s race is just six days. Emotions are still so raw. Chaos still reigns in many impacted areas. And I’d guess that even if power is restored on Saturday, too many New Yorkers will be distracted by getting their life back in order, bailing out their basements and cleaning out their refrigerators to pay too much attention to whatever inspiring marathon moments that may be happening outside their doors.

Bloomberg’s dilemma on the marathon may not be an easy one, but postponing the race does seem like the better call. The race would still happen. Businesses would still get their boost, and New Yorkers with further distance from the frustrations and difficulties of Sandy’s wake would know their city fought on but held off until the immediate upheaval had dissipated. Bloomberg’s instincts to lead the city forward are the right ones. But asking New Yorkers to do so now is just too soon.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

In Sandy’s aftermath, more openness for remote work?

Gov. Christie praises Obama’s leadership during the storm

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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