Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Vulnerable Spectacle: Notes on the Bombing of a Marathon

The bombing at the Boston Marathon - what is there to say about such a thing? Already, barely a day into the story the story is on repeat. Terror, heroism, terror, heroism. How many are dead? Wounds and more wounds. Women & children. Look out for a dark skinned man in a hoodie. It's an awful mix.

Violence and the sport spectacle: they are not exactly strangers to each other (Munich, Hillsborough, the parking lot of Dodgers Stadium). Nevertheless, it is hard to place this event in a sport context. The obvious point of reference is Eric Rudolph's bombing of a crowd at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (which killed one person, and in which another died of a heart attack, and in which a great many were injured). If the media has shown any restraint in naming suspects (while giving in to its instinct to visualize that suspect for us), we can thank poor Richard Jewell, a security guard who actually saved people's lives when he spotted Rudolph's backpack. Jewell was falsely accused of the bombing and vilified by, sacrificed to the media gods. 

The reasons for Rudolph's attack are confused: it was part of a series of bombings - the others were attacks on health clinics (which provided abortions) and a gay bar. Although people assume his actions were part of some kind of homocidal anti-abortion campaign (as if that in and of itself isn't already crazy), investigators reported that people who knew him understood him to be anti-government, a racist, sexist and a homophobe - they couldn't recall that abortion was his issue. He was, more nearly, full of hate and violence. It seems likely Rudolph was drawn to the Olympics because it was a national spectacle at which large numbers of people were gathered and on which cameras were turned.

It feels weird to talk about this bombing as a sports story. This story is atypical - it isn't the spike in domestic violence associated with Superbowl Sunday, it isn't the mob taking-to-the-street after a team's loss or victory, it isn't an explicitly political attack on athletes representing the enemy, it isn't the stadium disaster brought on by indifferent capital, squeezing as many into as poor a space as possible. 

Perhaps this doesn't feel like a sports story because the marathon is a weird sport spectacle. It's an individual sport that provides the space for the articulation a specific kind of public. We don't think of the Boston marathon - or any marathon, really - as a nationalist spectacle (even one staged on Patriot's Day). Events won year after year by Ethiopian and Kenyan athletes remain popular, in every sense of the word. (An American man hasn't won the Boston marathon since 1983; an American woman hasn't finished first since 1985.)

Marathons are occasions for civic hospitality. That is the defining element of the major events staged in the US: the New York, Boston and Los Angeles marathons are city-stories. The metropolis shuts down its streets, interrupts its routines for a festival celebrating one of the simplest of things - running. Running for hours. Running on boulevards you know from your car, from buses, or from the movies.  

Spectators are right there on the street with the athletes. The spectacle unfolds lazily (for spectators) over hours. Spectators gather not just for the elite - they gather for the ordinary. And spectators are important: runners need their energy, their support and their cheer. There's something just plain generous about the marathon, as an event. It is a mass event - everyone on the sidewalk is part of the event's support team.

My yoga studio faces Sunset boulevard and has a large store-front window. The Los Angeles marathon went right past us. Our teacher turned the class so that we practiced facing the street. He led as through slightly more than 26 sun salutations so that we might celebrate and thank the runners. So that we might participate in the event with them. Outside, music blared, people cheered and handed out water. 

I hope this bombing doesn't change the culture of the marathon - its openness and generosity, its civic-mindedness, its celebration of the common runner and the commons through which she runs. If this is the thing that makes it vulnerable, it is also the thing that makes it valuable.  


  1. I think civic hospitality is exactly right, perhaps in part because the marathon is an extreme event that ordinary people can complete, not in two and a bit hours but four or five, and it's still an achievement. One thing that struck me in relation to the bombing is that even elite athletes are exhausted and really vulnerable at the end of the marathon. But the marathon can be symbolic, too. I ran the New York marathon in 2001. The towers were bombed in September, and I think by the end of the month they had affirmed that the race would go on as scheduled in November. There were firefighters everywhere, with the runners cheering them as we went past, and people wearing t-shirts with the names of their dead on them. It was quite emotional, and a bit nervous, but also a celebration of the city--fundamentally an urban event, as you suggest--and I imagine that they will run the marathon in Boston next year, and it will function in the same way.

  2. Thanks for sharing that memory. Am recalling the recent cancellation of the NYC marathon, post Sandy. There's a reason people were really conflicted about what to do.

    One thing about this bombing - at 4 hours, that's a lot of people finishing. The people watching the race at that point are exactly not there for the world's elite runners, but for their friends, family, co-workers.

  3. This is extraordinarily moving and smart. Thanks!


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