A Runner’s Response
A New Jersey-New York Track Club member’s thoughts on Mary Wittenberg, the NY Post, and the cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon
by Liam Boylan-Pett
Author’s note: I am a member of the New Jersey-New York Track Club, a non-profit group of professional runners based in New York City, parts of New Jersey, and Philadelphia. My track club, like many in the U.S., has received funding from New York Road Runners, the parent organization of the New York City Marathon. One of my teammates, Olympian Julie Culley, was going to run the marathon.
Our club supports NYRR and its CEO Mary Wittenberg not just because they help us, but because we believe that the organization and Wittenberg are great ambassadors of our sport.
We understand the decision to cancel the race. However, what we will not stand for is the continued thrashing of an organization by a news source that fails to report all of the facts. With that in mind, here is my response to the Post’s continued coverage of the marathon, NYRR, and Wittenberg.
NEW YORK CITY, N.Y – In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the New York Post set out on a vendetta against the New York Road Runners and its head, Mary Wittenberg.
An article published by the Post on November 4th by Mike Vaccaro called for the firing of Wittenberg. The article claimed that Wittenberg should be fired for blaming the cancellation of the marathon on the media. The article quoted this statement from a letter sent by NYRR to the 47,000 runners who would not be able to race:
“It became increasingly apparent that the people of our … area were still struggling to recover. That struggle, fueled by the resulting extensive and growing media coverage antagonistic to the marathon and its participants, created conditions that raised concern for the safety of both those working to produce the event and its participants.”
This simply states that the antagonistic coverage by the media is one of the reasons—along with the struggle being endured by the city—that the marathon was cancelled. Vacarro argues that blaming the media is foolish, implying that “it was a public outcry”—and only that public outcry—that forced NYRR to cancel the marathon.
Yet in an article also posted on November 4th by Vacarro titled “Power to the People,” he wrote:
“Yes, this newspaper took a stand on Friday morning — a big one, an important one — appealing to the Mayor’s conscience to call off the New York City Marathon. Yes, there were plenty of pundits, print and radio and TV, who took up the baton, who rightly and loudly tried to shame the Mayor into doing the right thing.”
He then goes on to say that it was the people who protested that are the “stars” of the cancellation of the marathon. Vacarro’s continued claim that the media had nothing to do with the dissenting opinions towards the marathon do not comply with his belief in the “big” and “important” stand the Post took against the marathon.
The Post omitted a big chunk of the cancellation email sent to participants in the 2012 New York City Marathon. One passage read:
“Neither NYRR nor the City could allow a controversy over the marathon to result in a dangerous situation or to distract attention from all the critically important work that is being done to help New York City recover from the storm.”
While NYRR wanted to move on and help with the relief effort, the Post attacked an organization that was explicitly trying to help. (And NYRR did help: along with the $1 million donation to Hurricane Sandy Relief efforts, the organization encouraged volunteers and runners to help by donating or getting involved with the clean-up.)
Vacarro was not the only writer who decided to go after NYRR. On November 12th, the Post’s Jeane Macintosh wrote an article about the charitable donations and revenue of NYRR. The article states:
“Organizers of the New York City Marathon, who routinely crow about all the money the race raises for good causes, doled out only $494,000 in direct aid last year – less than what they paid their CEO, Mary Wittenberg, records show.”
The story goes on to dissect the internal workings of the revenue of NYRR and Wittenberg’s $500,843 salary.
Macintosh writes that while the nonprofit organization raked in $53.8 million in revenue in 2011, most of its direct charitable contributions went to its own kids programs to the tune of $208,340. The same youth programs that the Times reported on October 12 as having “grown by more than 10 times [under Wittenberg]. The club’s money goes to helping more than 130,000 children in and out of New York City.”
The article goes on to explain that most of the rest of the charitable donations go to runners’ organizations across the country. (As I stated earlier, I am a part of one of those runners’ organizations, the New Jersey-New York Track Club.) These organizations are track clubs across the US that allow runners to keep their athletic endeavors going beyond college, but they also serve as more than that. In my case, the NJ-NY Track Club is also a non-profit organization. We work with communities in New York, New Jersey, and the Philadelphia area to promote the sport of running with youths and adults alike. We are like the NYRR in that we promote distance running and fitness in everyday life.
The story glosses over the fact that NYRR donated $1 million to Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts. Robert Johnson, a co-founder of runner-junkie website LetsRun.com, put that donation into context in an email to me: “NYRR gave $1 million to Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. Contrast that to the NFL [also a non-profit organization], which also gave $1 million to the same relief effort. The donation is the same but the NFL took in $9.5 billion dollars in revenue last year as compared to $53.8 million for NYRR. So NYRR is 176 times more generous [than] the NFL. Their donation was the equivalent of the NFL giving $176 million to Hurricane Sandy.”
The smearing of the NYRR by the Post has lacked any real substance. Macintosh’s article about the charitable contributions made by the NYRR is rendered moot by the last sentence of the piece:
“In its mission statement, NYRR doesn’t claim to be set up as a fund-raising charity, saying that its goal is to promote distance running and fitness and that it dedicates its revenues to those purposes.”
The donations NYRR makes each year match up completely with what the NYRR sets out to do every single day.
Mike Vacarro insinuates in his article that the famed and loved Fred Lebow – the father of the New York City marathon – would have canceled the marathon immediately. To say he would or wouldn’t is impossible to know – Lebow died in 1994 – but it is fair to say that he loved New York and he loved running. In his obituary, the Times quoted an earlier interview from Lebow: “One beautiful spring day, I was in my office early in the afternoon, and on sudden impulse, I left, went up to 90th Street and started running. It was wonderful, and I told myself that if it was so important to me, it would be immoral not to deliver the message to others.”
NYRR and Mary Wittenberg still hold that belief. They want to share running with the world. They wanted to share the 2012 New York City Marathon with the city. It wasn’t meant to be this year. Next year it will be better than ever, and Wittenberg should be leading the charge along the five boroughs of New York.
Liam Boylan-Pett is a freelance writer and professional runner for the New Jersey-New York Track Club. His work has appeared in Running Times, Bring Back the Mile, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter, and check out his excellent blog Will Run for Food.