BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- It's hard to recall the context of any sporting event changing as quickly and dramatically as that surrounding this year's New York City Marathon. Even as the city's other sports ground back to life -- the Knicks on Friday, the Nets on Saturday, the Giants on Sunday -- the five-borough race was different, a contortion for the city under the best of times, albeit a pleasant and lucrative one.
Usually a collection of tales of endurance, strength and the triumph of the human spirit and of New York City, following on the heels of Hurricane Sandy the race suddenly threatened to become about waste and entitlement. Before it was canceled on Friday, the runners, whose exhaustive training would have brought many millions of dollars to the city ($340 million last year, says the New York Road Runners) and to charity, were on the verge of being painted as greedy carpetbaggers, flying into town to steal electricity and clean water from the needy.
That, of course, was not what any of these athletes intended, which is why it's fortunate that the race was scrapped, albeit a few days too late to protect the marathoners from the ire of a hurting, generally pissed-off city.
The show must go on is an admirable old theater trope and an old New York trope, too, and so it makes sense that this was Mayor Michael Bloomberg's first instinct regarding the marathon in the post-Sandy chaos. He even invoked 9/11. But this is not that. Setting aside the fact that immediate victims of September 11 were helped, if they could be helped, long before the marathon was run, storm surges are not a sentient enemy. They don't decide to attack, though it may have seemed like it to those on the coast of New York and New Jersey. You cannot successfully convey defiance to a wind pattern. Weather is not interested in your can-do attitude.
Perhaps if the marathon didn't start each year on Staten Island, which is now well and truly devastated, the race could have gone on smoothly enough. Even if it were true that the marathon would somehow not have diverted any resources from recovery -- a highly questionable claim considering the police, water, tents, food, blankets and road closures along streets with mobbed gas stations involved in the race -- it still would have been a bit much to expect Staten Island, where bodies were still being found and entire communities rendered homeless, to line up and cheer for a procession of any kind, however well-intentioned. Especially if that procession involved portable generators.
Much of New York's sporting world did, in fact, go on. The Knicks played on Friday night at Madison Square Garden to a big crowd, despite the many people below 34th Street who had only just regained power or were still waiting. The Nets, after Thursday's postponed would-be debut, played on Saturday as more and more of the transit system came back on, celebrating Brooklyn as the borough emerged from its post-storm isolation. The Giants played in New Jersey on Sunday with some grumbling about the appropriateness of it all -- hundreds of thousands of state residents were still without power, and whole towns are wrecked not so very far from MetLife Stadium -- but nothing approaching the fury that was starting to be directed at the marathon.
But none of those events posed a disruption to recovery, or at least, not such a visible one.
Saturday afternoon at the Gowanus Houses -- less than a mile from the Barclays Center, sparkling new home of the Nets, and wedged in between the largely prosperous and brightly lit areas of Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Park Slope -- volunteers from all over Brooklyn met with the National Guard to help unload and distribute food, MREs, emergency rations, baby supplies and medicine to low-income residents. The concern was largely for the elderly and disabled most affected by the lack of elevators, but conditions were miserable for everyone and likely to get worse as the temperature dropped.
A couple of hours later, the Nets made their home debut a 15-minute walk away. The arena brightly lit, full of good overpriced local food (ah, the $6 pizza slice), warm, with nicely dressed people lined up at the Calvin Klein VIP Entrance.
Of course, let's be honest: The normal contrast between conditions in the Gowanus Houses and the Barclays Center is not much less dramatic. The hurricane, like most such disasters, only made existing issues starker. And while the Nets spoke earnestly of hoping to be a pleasant distraction to people in need of one, the crowd watching them on Saturday was mostly not from the Gowanus Houses or Breezy Point or any of the borough's most damaged neighborhoods; even if they did not have power, they at least had homes. Those who most needed distractions did not, as of Saturday night, have access to working TVs, let alone the arena.
Still: That's hardly the Nets' fault, and it's not as if there were an easy way to divert power from Barclays Center to the housing projects nearby. The Nets, the NBA and the Players' Association all made sizeable donations to relief funds, and coach Avery Johnson said that his team would get out into the community to help on their off day. They hurt nothing by playing, and while giving all their profits away might have been a beautiful thing, it's not what we typically ask of our sports teams. Similarly, you could perhaps argue that people should not have wasted gas to drive to the Giants game when others need it for more vital things … but that's farther than most people were willing to go.
The reason why New York's restarting sports teams mostly got a pass while the marathon was scorned was only partly because these are local teams, not out-of-towners, though that's part of it. Mostly the marathon could not be embraced as a "return to normalcy" because, not only is the city a very long way from normal, the marathon itself is not normal -- it's a massive undertaking, if one that the city gladly puts itself out for most years (for an impressive monetary haul -- $340 million last year, according to the NYRR -- not to diminish the charitable proceeds). A Knicks game is, indeed, a kind of normal. The five-borough race is a special occasion. That's the beauty of it and, this year, the problem. The city is barely at a point where it can shower and put some sweatpants on for the Knicks. It's not ready to get dressed up to go out and meet a horde of inspiring skinny people.
Brooklyn's 4th Avenue, where some ignored signs that still forbade parking for the nonexistent marathon, was mostly undamaged by Sandy, and was full of lines for gas on Sunday instead of runners. Hundreds of would-be marathon participants and other volunteers made the most of the cancellation and went to Staten Island to clean up the beaches and streets and help pull rotting sheetrock and insulation out of cold, soaked houses. There -- and in Red Hook, and the Rockaways, and Coney Island, and Gerritsen Beach, and the East Village, not to mention big chunks of Long Island and most of the Jersey Shore -- these are only the first tiny steps toward a recovery effort that will take months or years.
About all we can hope for is that we work quickly enough to help storm victims so that by this time next year the damage will have been repaired enough for the marathon to revert to its traditional framework: for stories of overcoming different challenges while running 26.2 miles to be relevant and welcome again.