Something to Cheer About: Bloomberg and the New York Marathon

The show must go on – or so claimed Mayor Michael Bloomberg after scolding New Yorkers for not knowing the difference between 311 and 911 calls as the water levels were rising in the city. Reporting a fallen tree was not quite the same as reporting a life-threatening incident. “You have to keep going and doing things. … You can grieve and you can cry and you can laugh and that’s what humans are good at.” The scene in New York is hardly apocalyptic but a city where hundreds of thousands still lack electricity is not a tolerable state of affairs for any mayor. With exceptions.

The mayor initially insisted that the New York City Marathon would take place despite the handiwork of Hurricane Sandy. That event has never been cancelled in its history – and Bloomberg was determined, at least initially, not to. There was even a rumour that the city was seeking the enforcement services from other jurisdictions for the race. Now that is a superb deployment of resources after a natural disaster.

Bloomberg has been kind enough to show his priorities – there would be electricity, in the form of diesel-powered generators feeding a media tent in Central Park designed for the Marathon. True, New Yorkers might be short of food, have a transport system in a state of paralysis, and still be counting the bodies, but sport, in its voyeuristic capacity, can be so invigorating.

James King, writing in the Village Voice (November 2), is rather sour about the whole business. “We think we speak for the majority, when we say the following: shut up, Mike Bloomberg.” U.S. Rep Michael Grimm, who covers Staten Island and Brooklyn, put it in unmistakably stark terms. “We’re still pulling bodies out of the water and the mayor is worried about marathon runners and returning to life as normal.”

Grimm, living up to name, went into logistical details, sensible and totally spoiling of the mayor’s enthusiasm. “The Verrazano Bridge should be used for getting fuel and food in to Staten Island, not getting runners out. Police resources would be best allocated to prevent looting and in rescue and recovery operations.”

With such a stormy reception to his grand vision of cheering New Yorkers hungry for a distraction from melancholic despair, Bloomberg suddenly felt that this was the show that should be cancelled. Humour comes in various guises – and this was not a palatable one. The laughter should have been resounding had the mayor decided to prevent the re-opening of that other grand show of indulgence – Wall Street and its speculative activities. In a business civilization, that would be unthinkable, and highly disrespectful.

In some ways, this whole fuss is unintentionally fitting. The original marathon was a blood and sweat tears affair that ended in the expiry of the running messenger, Phidippides, after he exhausted himself running from Marathon to Athens to warn of a Persian attack. If people are going to cheer this bit of indulgent narcissism, well and good – it might be a more honest appraisal of the New York spirit, one of torment, spectacle and irresponsible expiration.

Bloomberg himself suggested that the marathon was vital to small businesses in the city, that the dead would want the living to keep rolling in the money. “We have an economy… It’s a great event for New York, and I think for those who were lost, you’ve got to believe they would want us to have an economy and have a city to go on for those that they left behind” (Time, November 2). There is always a time to die, but there should also be a time to live and spend, even via a feat of pure orchestrated folly.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.