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Saturday, November 3, 2012 - Page updated at 10:00 p.m.

NYC mayor relents, calls off marathon to focus on storm relief

By Ken Belson and James Barron
The New York Times

NEW YORK — After days of intensifying pressure from runners, politicians and the public to cancel the New York City Marathon in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, city officials and the event's organizers on Friday canceled the race.

The decision was made late on a day when emotions, frayed after almost a week of desperation, darkness and cold, approached a breaking point and the collective spirit that buoyed the city in the first few days after the storm gave way to complaints of neglect and unequal treatment.

The marathon has taken place every year since 1970, including the race in 2001 held two months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and was projected to bring in $340 million.

For days, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is often reluctant to abandon a position, insisted on going ahead with the race, saying it would signal that the city was back to normal. He changed his mind as opposition became nearly unanimous.

Critics said it would be in poor taste to hold a footrace through the five boroughs while so many people in the area were still dealing with damage from the hurricane, and that city services should focus on storm relief, not the marathon. A petition from some marathoners called on other runners to skip the race and do volunteer work in hard-hit areas.

But the mayor liked the parallel to Sept. 11 and saw the marathon as a symbol of the city's comeback. He talked to former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani on Friday morning; Giuliani said to stick with his original plan.

Within the mayor's inner circle, there were concerns about what the world would see: images of runners so close to neighborhoods that had been battered by the storm, at a time gasoline remained in short supply and mass transit was not fully functioning.

Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Deputy Mayors Howard Wolfson and Patricia Harris all argued for calling off the event.

The mayor relented and canceled it after a conversation with Mary Wittenberg, the marathon director, Friday evening. Bloomberg, saying he would not want "a cloud to hang over the race or its participants," explained: "We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event ... 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."

Arielle Knutson, 29, of Seattle, was among the runners who learned of the cancellation Friday, right after she and her husband picked up her race bib, timing chip and T-shirt at the marathon's registration headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

"As we were leaving, there were people crowded around the TVs, watching the mayor announce that it was canceled," she said.

The news took some people by surprise; Knutson saw one man cry. But rumors had been circulating on social media before the announcement, and most people in the convention center seemed to take it in stride, she said.

"It was a big investment for us to come here from Seattle," said Knutson, who flew into JFK Airport on Friday with a suitcase full of running clothes. "I'm disappointed, but I understand those resources could be used more effectively to help people in need."

George Hirsch, chairman of the board of Road Runners — the organization that operates the marathon — said: "We still want to do something, and we're going to do something."

Among the many details that remained unclear was how the field of nearly 50,000 runners who were expected to compete in Sunday's marathon, thousands of whom traveled to New York from other countries, might be compensated. Runners who were registered for Sunday's race are guaranteed entry into next year's race.

"We have a lot to work through," Wittenberg said when asked if elite runners would still receive their appearance fees. "We appreciate the investment athletes have put into training for New York. As always we'll be sure to be fair. I think everyone knows and will expect that of us."

Nearly 40,000 of the 47,500 registered runners had arrived in the city, Hirsch said.

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.

Patience, meanwhile, wore thin in other parts of the New York area amid lines that were painfully long — lines for free meals, lines for buses to take people where crippled subways could not, lines for gasoline that stretched 30 blocks in Brooklyn.

Hand-lettered signs in hard-hit areas struck a plaintive note: "FEMA please help us," read one in Broad Channel, Queens. In Hoboken, N.J., one was addressed to Gov. Chris Christie: "Gov. Chris — where is the help $$$$?"

Ethel Liebeskind of Merrick, N.Y., echoed that idea as she stood in the storm-tossed ruins of the house she had lived in for 26 years.

"This is as bad as Katrina," she said, "and they got global attention. The South Shore of Long Island should be treated the same way. Don't forget us on the South Shore of Long Island. We need help."

There was more grim news on Staten Island, where rescuers pulled two more bodies from another house in the Midland Beach neighborhood.

That brought to 41 the official count of people who died in the city as rampaging wind drove a wall of water into the city Monday night.

Elsewhere across the metro area, the recovery made slow progress. Companies turned the lights back on, and many employees returned to their desks. Many major retailers also reopened.

Seattle Times staff reporter Susan Kelleher contributed to this report. Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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