In 2001, when I was younger and all that goes with that, I was on the US Maccabiah Games triathlon team that would compete in the so-called Jewish Olympics held in Israel every four years. As my friend put it, I wanted to be the world’s fastest Jewish triathlete, something I didn’t do when I competed in the Games four years prior in 1997.
But spring of 2001 was a volatile one for Israel and it’s neighborhood. That meant bombs, attacks, and the general sense that walking down the street risked life and limb. That led most participating countries to consider cancelling. They didn’t, after some political ping-pong, but the Maccabiah Games did cancel one event of the scheduled dozens. They cancelled the triathlon, saying it would be simply impossible to secure 51 miles of swimming, biking, and running. They could keep arenas and tracks and gymnasiums safe, small spaces with limited entry points. But open road and sea would prove far too challenging, even for a nation that specializes in security measures. So I didn’t go the Maccabiah Games in 2001, and I was okay with that. I didn’t have a wife and kids at the time, but I figured I might someday.
And yet we learned this week at the Boston Marathon, you don’t have to run a race in Israel to be at risk. In fact, you don’t even have to run, as the three killed in Monday’s bombing were spectators simply cheering on friends and family. Many of the injured were runners, including marathon finishers who suffered the cruelest of ironies, losing the very limbs that carried them through the physical and emotional toil of the race. It’s all hard to digest. Even though the numbers of casualties don’t rival some of our worst tragedies, the emotional vulnerability of this attack amplifies the sickening shock of it all. The finish line of a marathon is the ultimate victorious metaphor. And now in Boston, it will always mean something very different.
I ran Boston once back in 2005. I actually got really sick about four days before the race and threw up so hard I popped some blood vessels in my eye. I didn’t want to run, nor did my doctor, but all my friends from Boston convinced me pulling out of the Boston Marathon was like skipping Shake Shack at Citi Field. So I shuffled through the day, pushed by the greatest spectator public I’d ever seen at any sporting event in my life. You could do hand slaps with spectators the entire 26 miles. And as long as I could keep my arm up, I pretty much did. It was the greatest celebration of human spirit I had ever seen, a confluence of sweat, tears, Gatorade, and, well, alcohol, at least for the fans. Where people cheered just as loud for the 5000th runner as they did the first.
And in an instant, that’s all gone. A day and an event owned by the people is now a crime scene, another geographic locale to secure, like an airport or Grand Central Station. And now instead of talking about hanging out to watch the marathoners, Bostonians will think about escape routes and unclaimed backpacks and all the things that make it feel more like a privilege than a right. And that will extend from Boston to New York to Chicago to all the other great American cities that lead runners through its central streets. Where legions of spectators were once instant family, they’ll now look at each other suspiciously. Instead of cheering on each other’s runners, now it’s see something, say something.
And yet, I hope somehow, we can get past this. Not just past the tragedy, which, let’s face it, for some people will never happen. But past the idea that we can’t celebrate sport in public space. There aren’t a whole lot of places where we revel in sheer humanity of sport in all its grandeur. We celebrate star athletes, the 1% of 1% at every level, from high school to the pros. But not sport for all, average people doing extraordinary things. That’s what Boston is, where the five-hour runner is still a hero. Where spectating is free, because no one owns hope. Take away the Boston marathon and events like it, and you take away the power and promise of sport, and instead it’s just another entertainment commodity done by superstars, another thing to buy and sell. Another thing we leave behind like a pocketbook in a bomb scare. Another trip we can’t take, not unlike the one I didn’t to Israel back in 2001.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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