SAN DIEGO, November 2, 2012 - The public outrage that erupted over the last 48 hours following New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s annoucement that the ING New York City Marathon would continue as scheduled despite the destruction by Hurricane Sandy finally grew too big and too loud to ignore.
Late Friday afternoon, word began leaking out via numerous sources including the Los Angeles Times, CNN, NBC and ABC on Twitter that the race was being cancelled. Within a half hour, the decision was made official via a statement on – what else? – Twitter via the Mayor’s office Twitter account:
“@NYCMayorsOffice: We have decided to cancel the NYC marathon. The New York Road Runners will have additional information in days ahead for participants.”
The full cancellation statement from Mayor Bloomberg and NYRR President and CEO Mary Wittenberg as posted to the RunItFast.com website: “The Marathon has been an integral part of New York City’s life for 40 years and is an event tens of thousands of New Yorkers participate in and millions more watch. 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. The marathon has always brought our city together and inspired us with stories of courage and determination. We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it. 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 New York Road Runners will have additional information in the days ahead for participants.”
While Mayor Bloomberg, Wittenberg and marathon supporters saw the race as a symbol of the resilience of New York City, similar to the days following 9/11, many others including news media such as the New York Post and ESPN, public figures and hundreds of thousands of angry New Yorkers, family and friends of those affected by the hurricane ripped into the decision as inhumane and insensitive at a time when thousands remained without the basics like power, food, water or transportation.
They made their outrage heard via social media, comments on online news articles, a Facebook page called “Cancel the 2012 NYC Marathon” devoted to stopping the race with 35,000 “Likes” and a Change.org petition racking up thousands of signatures by the hour.
Race sponsors such as ING, United Airlines, Foot Locker, Nissan, Timex, Dunkin Donuts, Gatorade, and Subway started getting hit by the crossfire, fueling accusations that the decision to continue the race on Sunday was more about commerce than economic compassion. Any public relations benefit from being a sponsor was quickly washing out to sea.
Organizers tried to rebrand the marathon as a “Race to Recover,” announcing it would donate $26.20 of every entry fee to disaster relief, and would assist in raising money and encouraging large donations from sponsors. But it did little to hold back the growing tide of criticism.
There were solid arguments in favor of running the race. Marathons are big business and generate enormous income from the tourism spending, sponsorships, associated commerce and jobs generated. Positive economic impact is critically important in the wake of a natural disaster when normal habits and spending patterns are so grossly disrupted. Businesses fail at an increased rate after a disaster due to the disappearance of the normal consumer base. Employees lose jobs and their spending power diminishes, fueling the negative cycle.
But with the race starting in the midst of devastation on Staten Island, with generators capable of powering hundreds of homes being diverted instead to media tents in Central Park, buses using up scarce fuel to transport 20,000 to 40,000 runners to the starting line, and diverting city resources including police and medics, it was increasingly difficult to justify carrying on.
Holding the marathon while people remained without power, heat, gas and water seemed to turn a blind eye to the suffering in the midst of the event. Watching people along the route handing out water and Gatorade while those affected by Hurricane Sandy were still trying to find shelter seemed incomprehensible.
The last straw seemed to be when New Yorkers taking refuge in hotels due to destroyed or damaged homes were asked to leave to free up rooms reserved for marathon runners and visitors. Some hotels such as the Hilton Garden Inn in Staten Island refused to displace hurricane victims, putting up people who had reserved rooms for the marathon in meeting rooms and ballrooms instead.
Whether you felt the marathon should forged ahead and taken place, or felt strongly it was an insult to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, the New York City Marathon had become far too divisive. Mayor Bloomberg could no longer make the case the event would bring the city together, when the mere prospect of it going off as if nothing happened had already proven to be so divisive.
No New Yorker should have risked waiting one minute longer for police to help manage crowd control at a gasoline station or waited longer in line for food, water or batteries because first responders were busy at the marathon.
However, those people who were threatening to show their displeasure in Mayor Bloomberg’s original decision by disrupting the runners such as throwing eggs or shooting paintballs at them or even blocking their path are completely out of line. It would not have been any individual runner’s fault. The media unfortunately gave a forum to people like this who think it’s perfectly OK to take out their anger on innocent participants.
Some observers aren’t too happy about tonight’s season opener for the New York Knicks at home at Madison Square Garden against LeBron James and the champion Miami Heat. The Knicks already had their original opener against the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center cancelled. The Knicks said Friday that they will have a special pregame ceremony to pay respects to the victims of Sandy but would not provide details.
Heat player Dwayne Wade plans to make a donation to Sandy’s relief efforts, according to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols. USA Today reported that Wade will donate his check from tonight’s game. Wade makes $156,200 per game.
I’m a little mystified though why no one is complaining about the NFL game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants at the Meadowlands in New Jersey on Sunday. There are still plenty of power and transportation issues . The Associated Press reports that Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie today and Christie assured him that game would not divert any major resources from relief efforts.
Speaking at news conference in Brick at the opening of a FEMA office, Christie said only a few state troopers are assigned to the game and it was really a decision for the NFL to make.
Rather than fly in the day before and use up hotel rooms, the Steelers will fly the players and personnel into New Jersey on Sunday morning, and everyone will leave immediately after the game to lessen any negative impact.
Although the NYC Marathon is now cancelled, there is no assurance the public relations damage is finished being done, whether to city and race officials, sponsors, or even individual elite competitors like Ryan Hall or Dathan Rizenhein who were glibly offering up happy talk about the race on Twitter. These runners showed themselves to be woefully out of touch with the current situation in New York City.
As for NYRR’s Wittenberg, who adamantly defended her organization’s intention to go through with the Marathon, she is threatening to become this year’s Leona Helmsley for a lot of angry New Yorkers for doing too little, too late, and only under extreme pressure.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
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