What a mess – and I’m only peripherally talking about the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I am, of course, referring to the decision to cancel the ING New York City Marathon a day-and-a-half before the race.
Calling the marathon a “source of controversy and division,” the City of New York and the host club, The New York Road Runners decided to shut the race down.
It’s a poor decision, but not surprising given all the missteps in the way the city and the Road Runners handled the situation.
Under CEO Mary Wittenberg’s leadership, the Road Runners have flourished. The marathon has seen a 30 per cent jump in the size of its field since Wittenberg took over as CEO in 2005. Road Runner staff has grown from 60 to 150 and revenue has doubled to the point where the club now takes in $60-million annually, according to the New York Times. Much of that revenue has come from increasing the race fees as well.
In a large profile of Wittenberg in the Times (http://nyti.ms/QBquSv) in mid-October 2012, the newspaper reported she’s also drawn a lot of animosity from former club members with her move. One ex-board member called the club “way too corporate.”
But this latest move may cost Wittenberg her job. The decision to shut down the race, at a time when 40,000 of the 47,000 registered runners had arrived for the marathon, is a debacle. How would shutting down the marathon at that point assist anyone? All it did is add to the confusion and tension already in play.
If the marathon was going to pull out, then it should have done so immediately after Sandy. Instead, it decided to move ahead, saying it was dedicating the race to the City of New York, victims of Hurricane Sandy and their families.
A couple of things could have gone a long way to deflecting criticism of the marathon. First off, the Road Runners offered a $1-million donation to the hurricane relief fund. Given the optics of the race size and so forth, that was far too little. The marathon should have stepped up and offered a sum closer to, say, $20-million. That would have gone a long way to pacifying people and would have prevented what will now be a massive two-year hit on the Road Runner’s budget because of the marathon cancellation.
Secondly, and this suggestion came via Sub-three reader Augustine van der Baaren, the race could have taken place as five loops through Central Park, where it has been run in the past and also, more recently, as the course for the 2012 Olympic Trails. Such a closed circuit would have dramatically cut down on the resources needed to run the marathon and would have helped deflect much of the criticism leveled at the run.
As it is, the next question may well be whether the marathon finds itself searching for a new sponsor. Businessweek (http://buswk.co/SxPIlA) reports that title sponsor ING has taken a lot of flack over the decision to move ahead with the marathon. The tarnished reputation may cause the bank to reconsider its association with the event.
One other disturbing thing to come out of all this is backlash against runners that the media seemed more than happy to fuel.
“They should make all of these runners bring food and water to people’s houses who need it,” Yelena Gomelsky, a Coney Island resident, told the New York Post.
In Forbes online, the magazine ran a comment piece headlined that “Going forward with the NYC Marathon would have been moral affront.” The same piece discussed how 10 days after the Sept. 11 attacks a game-winning home run at Shea Stadium served to bring optimism to the city.
And the writers go on to pen: “Maybe a case can still be made for playing football.”
Just not runners.
I’ve seen a lot of persuasive pieces arguing for the cancellation of the race; but I believe a more substantial donation and a better contained race might have mitigated the lasting resentment that’s bound to come from the marathon’s on-again, off-again waffling.