November 4, 2012

New York City Marathon - How Big Is Too Big?

Today I watched an interview with Mary Wittenberg, President of New York Road Runners (NYRR), saying that cancelling the New York City Marathon was an “extraordinarily tough” decision. She also said that it was “extremely difficult news to share with the city and with runners from around the world who are here.” Wittenberg said the decision was made together by NYRR and Mayor Bloomberg’s office. The decision to cancel was made two days before the start of the race and was a reversal from the Mayor’s original decision earlier in the week that the marathon would indeed be run.

I’m struggling to understand why this decision was “extraordinarily tough.” A decision is tough when the outcome of such decision is not clear; when one path becomes two, and you have to decide which path to take, but you’re not sure where either leads. In this case, however, the outcome of the decision was very clear. Run the race and divert critical city resources away from the victims of Hurricane Sandy, or, alternatively, cancel the race and put those resources toward people suffering.

In her interview Wittenberg said  that “the whole idea was come Sunday, for the marathon to bring everybody together, uplift everybody, and help us both honor those hurt and lost in this really difficult tragic storm and also really move the city forward.” She went on to talk about how it was “sad” that the marathon became a matter of “controversy” and “division” in the city which was so opposite of what the marathon is all about.

I understand in normal times how a marathon can bring people together. Volunteers come out to help support the race. Spectators and families come out to cheer for the runners. But after a major natural disaster? When people are without homes and are trying to figure out how to put their lives back together? Is a marathon going to be uplifting to or honor these people? I don’t see it.

How Big is Too Big?

The marathon brings in an estimated $340 million to the city of New York. People travel from all around the world to run this event. They rent hotel rooms. They eat out at restaurants. They buy souvenirs, tee shirts, posters, key chains and hats. They also raise an estimated $34 million for 200 charities. With over 40,000 runners, it’s the biggest of the big city marathons. How big? The biggest in the world. Bigger than the marathons in London, Paris, Tokyo, Chicago and Boston.

The decision to cancel the race wasn’t made until Friday, four days after the mega storm slammed into New York and New Jersey. Of course by that time runners from around the US and oversees had made the trip to New York. It’s no secret Mayor Bloomberg and NYRR’s original decision not to cancel the race generated outrage from local politicians, residents even runners.

Unfortunately, in listening to Wittenberg, it sounds like the Mayor and NYRR made the decision to cancel the race not because it was the right thing to do, but because they faced so much “controversy” and “division.” I would have hoped they reached the decision to cancel the marathon on their own without the pressure from others.

When things become too big they can take on a life of their own. Companies, banks, governments, institutions. Sometimes they can become too big, outgrow their purpose, become self-serving rather than serving their community or constituents. Their leaders talk and act accordingly. When I hear the leader of the organization responsible for the NYC marathon say it is “sad” that the marathon has to be cancelled because people are voicing their concern for the victims of a devastating natural disaster, I can only wonder...has the NYC marathon become too big? Has it taken on a life of its own? Has it become self-serving rather than serving the community?

Turns out that many runners decided to take matters into their own hands. They went door to door to give supplies to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. That is what I call serving the community.   


Tiffany said...

I agree! It was a hard decision to make in the beginning but it should have been made then when the right decision was clear - cancel, let volunteers help where it is really needed, and don't waste the time and money of the runners who could possibly still cancel flights due to weather and cancel hotel rooms. Now they are all in NYC and ticked off our and out hundreds of dollars... lovely. I think it is great that some are pitching in and helping out where they can but I agree - this decision was delayed for the wrong reasons and made for the wrong reasons.

AFib Runner said...

I disagree. I think canceling the race will cost the NYRR $60 million dollars, half of their operating budget. How many organizations can take that kind of hit? How many other New Yorkers (or Americans for that matter) are giving up 50% of their annual income for Sandy Relief?

Will Cooper said...

Tiffany, thanks for your comment. Sounds like you will be back next year?

AFib Runner, thanks for your comment. I don't know how to respond to your point other than to say NYRR should, like any organization, be prepared for major contingencies. I would be surprised if NYRR doesn't emerge stronger from this than they were before. My hope is that they learn from it.

Tiffany Phipps said...

I disagree completely. The revenue that the race brings in that day could have benefited to the Sandy Relief. The "resources" and "generators" that would have been wasted on the race sat undeployed and not in use. If the infrastructure couldn't handle a multi-bourough race than it could have been changed to 4.5 loops in Central Park. This was a major lose lose for everyone, including those displaced from the storm.

Will Cooper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Will Cooper said...

Tiffany, thanks for your comment. I agree, if equipment for the marathon wasn't deployed for , that is a major waste. Since you are from NY I will defer to you on that. However, I don't see how running the race would have helped fact it would have prevented whatever marathon resources they did mobilize from making it to the victims (I understand there was some if not all that made it). I also heard some of the runners actually spent their time on race day volunteering on Staten Island and other places. Anyway, its a major tragedy no matter how you look at it...I hope the recovery happens much faster than Katrina.