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NYC Marathon CEO explains decision to call off race

8:10PM EDT November 2. 2012 – Nothing has stopped the running of the New York City Marathon during the last 42 years. Not even the terrorist attacks of 2001 which occurred two months prior to the race. But on Friday, growing opposition to the marathon being held less than a week after superstorm Sandy caused city officials and organizers to cancel the race.

The decision was a stunning turnaround given on Friday afternoon New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg once again expressed his support for the marathon, emphasizing its importance in the city’s recovery. Around the same time, elite athletes met with news reporters to discuss the race at marathon headquarters in Central Park. But a few hours later, Bloomberg and New York Road Runners president and CEO Mary Wittenberg issued a joint statement acknowledging the race had become a “source of controversy and division.”

“It’s sad but what has happened in the last few days it became clear that the marathon became a matter of controversy and division in the city, which is so opposite of what this event is all about,” Wittenberg said Friday.

“So it was time to make an incredibly difficult decision that we made together. And the decision was this is about moving the city forward, this is about this marathon lasting for many decade tos come and continuing to inspire people. It was time to just move on and let the city focus on our efforts ahead and on the recovery.”

Beyond the public relations damage already done, cancelling the race will be costly. About 18,000 to 20,000 international runners were expected to compete in the race. Many runners, who have arrived in New York already, made a significant financial investment – to say nothing of the training. Appearance fees for the pro athletes are expected to be paid.

But a source of controversy will be the entry fee. According to the NYRR’s most recent tax records, which cover the revenues and expenses of the 2010 race, the group reported spending $29.9 million on the event and taking in $23.3 million (much in the form of entry fees).

Earlier in the week, Wittenberg had said those who canceled would be guaranteed a spot in next year’s marathon, but would lose their entry fee from this year and have to pay a new entry fee next year. This year that fee ranged from $216 to $347 for non-U.S. residents.

According to the application instructions, “entry fees are non-refundable and non-transferable under any and all circumstances, including, but not limited to, cancellation of the event or of your participation.”

As these details are determined, it’s clear the immediate future may be just as difficult as the past week for race organizers, however this time the anger will likely come from runners.

However, in the end, city officials and Wittenberg, said the painful decision was the right one.

“Over the course of the week it became clear that the marathon, which is really one of the very best days in the life of the city … had become divisive, and had become controversial,” Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson said at a news conference with Wittenberg. “And, candidly, that controversy grew, and that division grew, over the course of the week.

“If all of New York is not behind it as we are every year, it is not the marathon that we know.”

Just hours earlier, Bloomberg defended the decision to hold the race. “It does use some resources but not resources that can make a difference in recovery. It’s a relatively small amount,” Bloomberg said Friday.”We have to keep going and doing things, you can breath, cry and laugh at the same time that’s what human beings are good at.”

He also drew a parallel between 2001 and 2012, saying “Rudy (Guiliani) made the right decision” holding the 2001 race after 9/11.

The profound influence of social media alone did not sway decision makers but it likely played a significant role in the unprecedented decision. Tens of thousands expressed their opposition on Facebook, Twitter and online petitions. Local politicians, especially those in Staten Island, an area hit hard by the storm, also played a key role. Many said that the city’s resources shouldn’t be diverted from storm victims.

New York councilman James Oddo, who represents parts of Staten Island. was among the local politicians who criticized the city for planning to hold the race. On Friday, he said he was pleased with the reversal.

“I credit New Yorkers for ensuring that our city did the right thing and that we refocus all of our energy on the communities that need it,” Oddo said.

Oddo said the vocal critics on Twitter and Facebook made a difference. “I would venture to guess that it was the scope of the opposition, the breadth of opposition was clearly growing,” Oddo said. “I think social media makes the ability to galvanize a movement like never before.”

Emily Maskey, 24, of Brooklyn, also expressed support for the decision. “I think it’s smart. It was stupid for (organizers) not to cancel it in the first place. It was the right thing for them to do. I don’t think it benefited that many people besides the runners or those who were a part of it.

“If the runners and organizers were affected by the storm, why run a marathon? It’s not only inconsiderate, it’s irresponsible. It’s ludicrous. Marathons always cause traffic so the disruption from that and the relief efforts, there’s no way it was worth it.”

Runner Mike Raabe, 50, of Brier, Wash., had mixed feelings after being told the race was off. He had gone to a movie and received a text from his wife with the news. “The hard thing is you feel for anyone affected by the hurricane, too, but you’re kind of hoping to bring a little bit of something to cheer for for a day, at least,” he said.

“You don’t want to seem insensitive,” he said. “A lot of people have lost a lot, especially on Staten Island. It’s where we start, where a lot of it happened and people died. That would have been a hard thing. But it’s still a drag because you trained for it, you’re mentally ready for it.”

The 26.2 mile race through New York’s five boroughs traditionally draws about 47,000 runners. Earlier in the week, Wittenberg cited the estimated $350 economic impact for the city during a typical marathon year, and its sizable charitable efforts – $34 million raised last year. “So all that positive impact on top of sending the message to the world of the resiliency of New York City, those are the reasons this event is so important to New York City,” she said Wednesday.

Marathon officials worked throughout the week on logistical issues. The biggest question was transporting thousands of runners to the starting line on Staten Island, which was ravaged by the storm.

Contributing: George Schroeder, Scott Gleeson, Roxanna Scott and Steve Berkowitz

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