The New York City Marathon was cancelled on Friday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg after mounting criticism that this was not the time for a race while the region is still recovering from Superstorm Sandy.
With people in storm-ravaged areas shivering without electricity and the death toll in the city at more than 40, many New Yorkers recoiled at the prospect of police officers being assigned to protect a marathon, storm victims being evicted from hotels to make way for runners, and big generators humming along at the finish-line tents in Central Park.
Around 47,500 runners from around the globe had been expected to take part in the 26.2-mile (42.2-kilometre) event Sunday, with more than 1 million spectators usually lining the route for the world's largest marathon. The race had been scheduled to start in Staten Island, one of the storm's hardest-hit places.
Bloomberg had pressed ahead with plans run the marathon on schedule, but opposition intensified quickly Friday afternoon from the city controller, Manhattan borough president and sanitation workers.
Finally, the mayor backed down about three hours later.
"We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it," Bloomberg said in a statement. "We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event — even one as meaningful as this — to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track."
The cancellation means there won't be another NYC Marathon until next year.
Bloomberg called the marathon an "integral part of New York City's life for 40 years" and "an event tens of thousands of New Yorkers participate in and millions more watch."
He still insisted that holding the race would not require diverting resources from the recovery effort, but understood the level of friction.
"It is clear it that it has become the source of controversy and division," Bloomberg said. "The marathon has always brought our city together and inspired us with stories of courage and determination.
Bloomberg's decision came just a day after he appealed to the grit and resiliency of New Yorkers, saying "This city is a city where we have to go on."
The nationally televised race winds through the city's five boroughs and has been held annually since 1970 — it was held in 2001, about two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"This race is a very special one for me and millions of people around the world, but I understand why it cannot be held under the current circumstances," said Meb Keflezighi, the 2009 men's champion. "Any inconveniences the cancellation causes me or the thousands of runners who trained and travelled for this race pales in comparison to the challenges faced by people in NYC and its vicinity in the aftermath of Sandy. New York is my favourite place to race, so I will be back to participate in other events soon."
Looking forward to race
As for the amateur runners, Nikki Davies of London arrived Friday looking forward to the race.
"I can understand not wanting to run through devastated parts of the city," she said. "I thought if they cancel it, they'd cancel it earlier."
But she plans to stay in New York for 10 days. On her agenda?
"A lot of sightseeing," she said.
The marathon usually is a civic celebration. Not just for elite runners, the race attracts crowds that gather in the five boroughs to cheer family and friends, hold up encouraging posters, distribute water cups and drape silver wraps around the shoulders of the finishers.
In buildings along the route, there are untold numbers of parties, ranging from catered feasts to grilled burgers.
Thousands lined Central Park as Geoffrey Mutai of Kenya set a course record last year in 2 hours, 5 minutes, 6 seconds. By the time last-place finisher Mouldi Fehri of France was nearing the end in 9:31:43, traffic had reopened on Central Park South and people hardly took notice.
Sue Ann Ng Martinez of Old Bridge, New Jersey, finished 46,535th and next to last, the final woman across the line in 2011. This year, she was focused on victims trying to copy with their losses.
"I'm more concerned about the people in Staten Island," Martinez said.
People from all over the globe come to New York for the race. Retired Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar had a 4:19 time last year in his first marathon and trained four months this time hoping to improve Sunday. His wife and two children travelled with him from Amsterdam on Thursday and his family planned to run in a 5K on Saturday.
"When you see the relief effort at the moment and people without water and electricity and certain basic needs, it's probably for the better to get the resources to the people who really need it," he said.
Some runners at the New Yorker Hotel in midtown — just above the blackout zone caused by the superstorm — were in the lobby crying when they learned the race was off. One person was curled up on a couch, sobbing.
"We spend a year on this," said Gisela Clausen of Munich. "We don't eat what we want. We don't drink what we want. And we're on the streets for hours. We live for this marathon, but we understand."
In one corner of the New Yorker, a group of Italian runners watched the news with blank looks.
"I have no words," said Roberto Dell'Olmo, from Vercelli, Italy. Then later: "I would like that the money I give from the marathon goes to victims."