The Exchange

In the Wake of Sandy Devastation, the NYC Marathon Could Not Go On

UPDATE: On Friday evening, it was confirmed by NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the marathon for Sunday, November 4, would indeed be canceled. "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," he said in a statement.

The New York City Marathon is typically an inspirational event featuring thousands of runners and millions of spectators cheering along a vibrant autumnal landscape. But this year finds Marathon Sunday a topic of heated debate, as it is set to occur less than a week after the city was crippled by Superstorm Sandy, which has caused billions of dollars in damage. Some in a Sandy-weary metropolis struggling to recover amid continuing power outages, escalating gas shortages, rising death toll numbers and increasingly empty grocery store shelves say the time couldn't be worse for this race across the five boroughs. Others, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, cite not only the importance of displaying resilience in the face of tragedy but also the revenue generated by the race -- estimated at $340 million in 2011 -- as a reason to hold the event as scheduled. As of now, that is what is expected to occur, although late in the day some Twitter chatter -- including from L.A. Times reporter Mike Memoli -- pointed to the possibility of a cancellation announcement.

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Bloomberg has the support of former New York City mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Ed Koch, who both appeared on CNBC to defend his decision. Giuliani noted on Thursday that some called for the cancellation of the 2011 marathon following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center, but "I said to heck with that, we're going to have a marathon and we're going to show that New York City is the most resilient city in the world." Koch echoed those sentiments, saying, "There is no question in my mind that the marathon should be held, that the mayor should be applauded and that the media should be denounced for trying to do it in." As Giuliani did, Koch noted another time -- 1978 -- when many called for a cancellation of a ticker tape parade when the Yankees won the World Series but the city was also near bankruptcy.

[Related: How the Gas Crisis Is Affecting New Yorkers]

New York Road Runners (NYRR), in the wake of the criticism regarding the marathon, has pledged to donate $1 million to a "Race to Recover" fund to benefit storm victims. ING, the title sponsor of this year's race, has pledged $500,000 to the cause, and all who can are being encouraged to pitch in $26.20 (in honor of the race's mileage) or whatever else they can.  On their website, NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg states,"NYRR's thoughts and prayers go out to all of those impacted by the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy. On Sunday, as runners cross the five boroughs, we want them to bring with them a sense of hope and resilience. The marathon is not just a race — it's about helping NYC find its way on the road to recovery."

Road to Recovery Just Beginning

But this road to recovery is only at the very beginning stages, and the issue of timing remains, even if the spirit of hardiness in the face of adversity is understandable (if we cancel the marathon, does that mean Sandy "wins"?). The city could, of course, simply postpone the event, as it did the annual Halloween parade, and wait until the area is a bit further down this particular recovery road. The spirit of celebration might be a bit higher in a few weeks, even though a decision like this could inconvenience runners who have trained for months and are pouring in from across the globe. It is also perhaps more than a little distasteful to hold a race that kicks off in the devastated borough of Staten Island, where bodies are still being recovered and the death toll is the highest in the city (currently at 19). And how will the runners ultimately feel about participating in a race that has spawned such vitriol? Spectator support could be dramatically reduced this year, and there could even be some "boos" amid the cheers on the sidelines, which could certainly lead to lessened inspiration among participants.

[Related: Jersey Beach Communities Crushed by Sandy, Officials Vow to Recover]

The NYC mayors present and past  do not have the support of several other officials, including Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer, who said in a statement Friday morning, "After significant deliberation, I believe we should postpone and re-schedule the New York City Marathon in order to focus all of the City's resources on the crucial task of helping our neighbors recover from this disaster. New Yorkers deserve nothing less than to know that the entire government is focused solely on returning the City and their region back to normalcy."

New York City Comptroller John Liu on Friday also came out against holding the marathon, a reversal of his earlier stance. In a statement, he said, "I stated support for keeping NYC Marathon... [it's] now clear it would compromise the city's ability to protect and provide."

One focus point of outrage is directed at the large generators currently sitting in Central Park for the purpose of powering a media tent for the race.  An article in the New York Post Friday states, "Generators should give power to people — not marathon." This comes after Mayor Bloomberg said the marathon would not divert any resources from storm victims.

A Hospitality Issue

And a hospitality issue has emerged as some hotel owners across the boroughs have refused to evict storm evacuees in favor of marathon runners who booked rooms months ahead of time. Other hotels have honored the marathon bookings, forcing people still without power to search for new digs. The general shortage in lodgings due to storm-related shutdowns is also complicating room-and-board issues for more than 30,000 runners traveling in from other regions.

Mayor Bloomberg noted Thursday that electricity was expected to be restored to all of Manhattan by race day, freeing up several resources, including police force members. It remains to be seen whether this will actually happen -- and whether it will make a large dent in the currently divided sentiment, which has spawned a large social media response with pages such as Facebook's Cancel the Marathon petition, currently boasting more than 38,000 "likes."

Yahoo! Finance readers are also split on the issue. In our latest informal poll, which has so far received close to 100,000 responses, 56% of readers think the marathon should be canceled for this weekend, while 44% feel it would be a good idea to hold it as scheduled.

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What do you think? Should the race have been canceled? Or should it have gone on as scheduled in the spirit of resilience and revenue?

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