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In The Face Of Disaster, Sports Don't Always Unite


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. More than 40,000 people were supposed to run through the streets of New York City today in that city's famed marathon. But the race was canceled Friday in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had all week insisted that the marathon would go on. But he eventually relented, saying the issue and the outcry had become too divisive. NPR's Mike Pesca joins me now to talk more about this. Hey, Mike.


MARTIN: OK. So, thousands of people fly in from around the world really for this race. Any idea what all these people are doing now?

PESCA: Well, a lot of them are actually volunteering, using the time that they have in New York to go to places like Staten Island, where the marathon was to start. I've talked to a lot of people who were to run the marathon - it's not that hard. It is the most democratic sporting event that I know of. And, you know, in general the consensus was I wish we had known earlier, and part of that was because the mayor wanted to go ahead with the marathon and had to relent, as you said, just because it became controversial. But most, I mean, the vast majority said I wish we had learned earlier but we do understand. The Philadelphia Marathon's in two weeks. A lot of the elite runners are looking at their options and some of the elites are just shutting it down, 'cause you can't run too many marathons. And, you know, a lot of the marathoners also say that part of the marathon is training for the marathon. So, they got out of it and let's not be selfish here.

MARTIN: The journey - not the destination.

PESCA: Yeah.

MARTIN: So, this has happened before - canceling sporting events after tragedies. I mean, after 9/11, the commissioners for baseball and football had to make big decisions, right?

PESCA: Yeah. And, you know, especially in the case of football. Pete Rozelle, who was commissioner when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, they played football games a couple of days afterwards. And Rozelle had said that that was the worst mistake that he had made as commissioner. He's widely regarded as probably the best commissioner of any sport in the history of sports. So, you have to tread cautiously. And with the NFL after 9/11, it was members of the New Jersey Jets who got together and said we will not be playing. We will take the forfeit. And the NFL - I don't know if I want to use the word relented - but they had a decision to make and they decided not to play. And so that wound up being the right decision. But there were a couple of times where sports did play right afterwards.

In 1988, if you remember, the bombing of that - what we found out later was the bombing - of that Pan Am flight in Lockerbie, Scotland. Thirty-five kids from Syracuse University were on that flight. They played a basketball game in Syracuse. And going back reading the news accounts, they couldn't cancel the game, they said, but people said that was a horrible mistake. I even went back to 1901 and after McKinley was assassinated - remember, he was shot on September 6 and died 11 days later - but...

MARTIN: I don't remember 'cause I wasn't around. But, yes.

PESCA: If you look at the games - there were no games canceled back then in 1901.

MARTIN: I mean, I remember covering the game when the New Orleans Saints played after Hurricane Katrina. I mean, and that was a great thing. The city loved this. It was inspiring. Is there a kind of rule of thumb for these kinds of decisions?

PESCA: Yeah, I was at that game too. I didn't know you were there. The Saints played a home game in New Jersey, which didn't quite make sense, and they had a kind of a lost season. I would say the rule of thumb is this: you know, Mayor Bloomberg is a guy who's certainly ruled by his intellect and not his emotion. And when he looked at the situation, he said we can run the marathon. And strictly speaking, he was probably right. The marathon is a private, though nonprofit, organization and they had their own generators. And the police that would be dedicated to this, the mayor said, you know, they wouldn't really be taking away resources. But the optics of it were terrible. And, you know, the New York Post and others ran stories about how the generators could heat 400 homes. Now, that wasn't literally true. These huge generators that power tents can't just be plugged into a home. And in fact, if you look at the situation, the problem with power isn't the lack of generators, it's a lack of, you know, logistics and getting them in place.

But the rule of thumb is you have to listen to the public. I mean, the reason that sports has this place is because it knows its place. And when it becomes apparent that we're doing this over the objections of people, I think that politicians should realize they've got it wrong. So, even though it was a decision made late, how can you say to people who are suffering in the Rockaways or Seaside Heights or Long Beach or anywhere, oh, you've got it wrong. And so then it was, I think, the correct decision for the mayor to have pulled back on this one.

MARTIN: Very quickly though: the Giants and the Knicks both playing at home...

PESCA: That is true.

MARTIN: ...today.

PESCA: But, you know, you don't need a thousand extra police officers to police those games, and I think maybe that represents life going on and not stopping an ongoing enterprise, as opposed to dedicating resources to racing through the streets, some of which, you know, just got power back 24 hour ago. So, it's a little different.

MARTIN: NPR's Mike Pesca. Thanks, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.