NEW YORK – Under growing pressure with thousands still shivering from Sandy, the New York City Marathon was canceled Friday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg after mounting criticism that this was not the time for a race.
With the death toll in the city at 39 and power not yet fully restored, many New Yorkers had 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 – 30,000 of them from outside New York – had been expected to take part in the 26.2-mile event Sunday, with more than 1 million spectators usually lining the route. The world's largest marathon had been scheduled to start in Staten Island, one of the storm's hardest-hit places.
Bloomberg had pressed ahead with plans to run the marathon on schedule, but opposition intensified quickly Friday afternoon from the city comptroller, the Manhattan borough president and sanitation workers unhappy that they had volunteered to help storm victims but were assigned to the race instead.
Finally, about 3 hours later, the mayor relented.
"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."
City and race officials considered several alternatives: a modified course, postponement or an elite runners-only race. But they decided cancellation was the best option.
Organizers will donate various items that had been brought in for the race to relief efforts, from food, blankets and portable toilets to generators already set up on Staten Island.
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 have required diverting resources from the recovery effort. But he said he 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, including 2001, about 2 months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Mary Wittenberg, president of the organizing New York Road Runners, said it was the right move to cancel.
"This is what we need to do and the right thing at this time," she said.
"It's been a week where we worked very closely with the mayor's office and felt very strongly, both of us together, that on Tuesday it seemed that the best thing for New York on Sunday would be moving forward. As the days went on, just today it got to the point where that was no longer the case."
Wittenberg said she sensed an animosity toward runners in general as the week wore on. About 10,000 runners were expected to drop out after the storm arrived, she said.