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Bloomberg cancels New York marathon amid furor over Sandy aftermath

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Bowing to pressure from New Yorkers unwilling to spare precious state resources for a tourist event, Mayor Michael Bloomberg abandoned plans to press forward with the city's marathon – the first time in the race's 53-year history that it will be cancelled.

The famed road race was expected to attract 47,000 runners and was to be held as scheduled Sunday, starting in the borough of Staten Island, one of the areas worst hit by Hurricane Sandy. Mr. Bloomberg had days earlier cast the marathon as an event that could galvanize the devastated region, saying that's what it did after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

But the reaction this week was swift, with critics seeing it instead as prioritizing sponsors and tourists over storm-battered locals. Other city officials spoke out against holding the race, and the New York Post labelled the mayor's decision an "abuse of power." Around dinnertime Friday, Mr. Bloomberg backed down, spiking an event that draws 300-million television viewers, spurs $340-million in economic impact and raises $35-million for charity.

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"We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it," the mayor said. "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."

The decision came as the city's death toll reached 41, while millions remained without power and gas shortages mounted. Hours before Mr. Bloomberg's announcement, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited Staten Island to tell residents they had not been forgotten – it was Staten Island where Brandon and Connor Moore, ages two and four, were swept from their mother's arms during the storm and killed. Amid it all, many said the cancellation seemed inevitable. "Bloomberg comes to his senses," CNN said.

But the 11th-hour cancellation nonetheless stranded runners, including the 1,685 Canadians who secured a coveted spot in the race. Many of them had already gone to New York, particularly after Mr. Bloomberg insisted Wednesday the race would go on.

"To tell you the truth right now, I've been taken advantage of. I feel the marathon went ahead for business purposes. They got me here, I'm spending my money. I have no choice," said Tina Belbin, 42, a first-time marathoner from Lewisporte, Nfld. She only decided to go after the Wednesday declaration. Speaking from the marathon's Expo site, where crowds huddled around televisions to hear the news, Ms. Belbin said she'd already returned souvenirs she'd bought Friday. "They've pretty well yanked [runners'] chains," she said. "That's just unfair."

Marathoner Frank Woolstencroft, 34, of Calgary, said the decision was "at best, dishonest," after he, his sister and friend had already travelled to New York, like so many of the runners. "It's incredible. I just am floored. To tell you the truth, we feel like at least we weren't told the truth the entire way," he said. "I can appreciate that the race had to be cancelled in light of the storm, but you can't make a decision on Wednesday and change it on Friday. So it's disappointing, to say the least."

Initially, organizers tried to cast the marathon as something that would help the recovery. The New York Road Runners (NYRR), who host the event, had pledged $1-million and levied a $1-per-mile donation on its runners, which was expected to raise another $1-million. But Mr. Bloomberg was blunt Friday in saying "it is clear that it has become the source of controversy and division." He was joined by NYRR CEO Mary Wittenberg.

"The best way to help New York City at this time is to say that we will not be conducting the 2012 ING New York City Marathon," Ms. Wittenberg told a news conference, fighting back tears.

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Regardless of whether a marathon was in good taste – Reuters tallied the storm's overall death toll at 102 – ferry cancellations and gas shortages in New York would have made it a difficult event to pull off. Some decided to stay home before the cancellation.

"I just didn't feel it was appropriate to divert resources away from people in need," said Toronto runner Alexandra Flynn, 38, who had applied for a lottery spot for the past three years; she was unsuccessful, guaranteeing her a spot this year. It was supposed to be her last marathon. Now, she hopes to try again next year.

Many tourists pin the blame on Mr. Bloomberg and Ms. Wittenberg, saying they wonder why the decision, and about-face, took so long.

"The decision should have been made on Tuesday. It hasn't been sitting right with me the whole time," said Jane Spiteri, 47, an Ottawa resident who won a spot in the race. She plans to run 42.2 kilometres anyhow – next weekend, by going around and around the Rideau Canal – but is taking this weekend in stride.

"They're telling us we'll have guaranteed entry next year, so we'll come back next year," she said. "But, you know, a weekend in New York isn't all bad."

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