What the Boston Marathon Bombing Says About Sports: It Matters

Both the race and its aftermath are reminders of the importance of enduring.
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boston marathon first responders AP_edited-2.jpg
A Boston police officer wheels in injured boy down Boylston Street as medical workers carry an injured runner following an explosion during the 2013 Boston Marathon in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. (AP / Charles Krupa)

Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), and Patrick Hruby (writer, Sports on Earth and The Atlantic) discuss this week's tragedy at the Boston Marathon finish line.


When horror intrudes into the fantasyland of sports, people will say it shows us how little sports matter. Tragedy, they say, reveals how little impact mere races and games can have on the real world.

Nothing could be further from the truth. On the contrary, tragedy often shows us just how powerful sports can be.

The motivations behind Monday's attacks still aren't totally clear. The target, though, suggests an attempt to strike at the democratic values we hold dear, for the Boston Marathon may be our most fully, authentically patriotic event: held in Boston, where the American idea was born, on a holiday that celebrates the start of the American Revolution.

But even beyond all the flag-waving, the very nature of the race speaks to democratic values—right down to the name of the event, "Marathon," taken from a battle that ensured the survival of Ancient Greece.

Fittingly, no other great sporting event on earth is so radically egalitarian and free. Almost anyone can enter, of any gender, age, ethnicity, or creed; and elite international runners will compete beside first-time qualifiers and those in wheelchairs.

That radical openness extends to spectators, too. They need no ticket to watch, and are often separated from competitors by nothing but a strip of police tape and the invisible bonds of the social contract.

As we so often have been reminded since Monday, that very openness, and the invisibility of those bonds, is precisely what made the marathon look like a soft target. That target, though, is far harder than it seems.

If the bombs were meant to destroy the marathon or weaken the freedom it represents, they will miserably fail. My hope, and best guess, is that the 2014 Boston Marathon will be the biggest of all time. More competitors than ever will enter, and the largest crowd in history will show up to cheer them on.

Unquestionably, that 2014 field of competitors will also include victims of this week's blasts. Scarred, overcoming terror, missing an eardrum or even a limb, they will run, covering those 26 miles for themselves. But they will also run each mile for all of us. On that day, let no one say that a race can't impact the real world. Let no one claim that sports don't matter.

Monday was a horrible day, and we all must find our own ways to cope with horror. Guys, as we turn our eyes towards Boston, tell me yours.

–Hampton


At this point, Hampton, I still don't know how to shake Monday's grisly images and stories from my mind. But the quiet heroism of so many fellow citizens allows me to hold on to hope.

When confronted with a life-or-death situation, thousands of marathon participants, volunteers, and spectators chose to run into the smoke. No one could know if more bombs were rigged to blow, yet these men and women ran to help the injured without a second thought. Boston-area doctors have said that tourniquets applied at the scene by EMTs and Holiday Inn Express doctors alike saved several lives, and the Internet is replete with stories of a kind word, or a hug, or a finisher's medal, that in some small way beat back the horror of a very dark day.

Among those inspiring stories is the tale of marathon runners finishing the race and then running two more miles to Massachusetts General Hospital to donate blood. These weren't elite runners—most of them had braved the course in roughly four hours and were probably exhausted to the point of collapse. But they kept putting one foot in front of the other because other people needed their help. No terrorist, radical group, or malevolent individual can steal that collaborative spirit from us. As Hampton said, anyone who thought the marathon was a soft target is mistaken. Same goes for our collective courage and peace of mind.

This cowardly act will not stop runners from entering or watching the marathon. The September 11th attacks didn't stop us from taking planes or working in lower Manhattan.

The truth is that a marathon, like a golf tournament or outdoor musical festival, is virtually impossible to completely secure. Over 26.2 miles of suburban and city blocks, some seventh-story window above the course will not be swept, and some mailbox or garbage can tucked in an alley half a block away will not be inspected. Runners and spectators alike do risk falling victim to the asteroid of random human evil. But so does every American who gets on an airplane or a city bus, or travels abroad, or attends any large public gathering. This cowardly act will not stop runners from entering or watching the marathon, just like the September 11th attacks didn't stop us from taking planes or working in lower Manhattan.

I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other, Hampton, as we all will. And I have faith in the maxim of Jim Valvano: Every day, ordinary people accomplish extraordinary things.

What do you have to say in the wake of this tragedy, Patrick?

–Jake


Jake,

What gives me the most hope following the Boston Marathon bombings isn't so much what people on the scene did—as brave and compassionate as they were—but what the rest of us didn't do.

Namely, we didn't freak out. Flip out. Start torturing suspected terrorists. Fire a missile into a wedding party. Go to war on blatantly false pretenses because, hell, we were scared, and somebody was gonna pay. We didn't lose ourselves to fear and loathing and collective shock; we didn't soothe ourselves by lashing out; we didn't decide that this was the day that everything changed, as if the past was a pointless footnote and the future could be both shaped and controlled by sheer, bullish will.

We've been a little more humble and a lot more wise, this time, and if that's the price of a nightmarish decade—a price far too high—at least we've made a bit of progress.

Oh, sure: A small group of drunks allegedly beat up a Bangladeshi man for being a "f—king arab" outside of an Applebee's in the Bronx just hours after the bombings. Radical American cleric Pat Robertson said that Muslims shouldn't "talk to me about 'religion of peace.'" Glenn Beck—a self-styled student of history who apparently skipped the chapters on Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church and the Atlanta Olympics—bloviated that "no American citizen blows up random people; that's a Middle Eastern scene, that's not an American scene. When our crazies go off, they target the government, not streets that are crowded with people." Some random Fox News contributor (I could mention his name, but that would only mean he wins) even sent out Tweets blaming Muslims and suggesting, "let's kill them."

Also, the New York Post hasn't exactly covered itself in journalistic glory.

The vast majority of what we've seen and heard since Monday's horrifying blasts has been sensible. First responders performed brilliantly. Investigators are hard at work. Our leaders are acting like it.

Still, the vast majority of what we've seen and heard since Monday's horrifying blasts has been sensible. Appropriate. Not naive. Not numbed. Neither capitulatory nor cowed. Still emotional, but also smart. We are listening to our guts and our heads. First responders performed brilliantly. Investigators are hard at work. Our leaders are acting like it. We are doing what we can—even the New York Yankees are playing a small, symbolic part—without trying to shoot the delusional moon of felling every potential threat and feeling completely secure at all times.

Life is not secure. Not on an airplane, not at a stadium, not running in a marathon. We are born to die, and spend most of our time pretending otherwise. Especially through sports. That's part of what makes sports great, and almost all of what makes them matter. Terror is a dead end. It can produce fear, but never inspiration. A marathon is an open road. Jake, you mentioned putting one foot in front of the other. That's what you do in a race. That's what you do to get to the stands to watch a race. That's what you do when you're running away from—or into—horrible white smoke. After Boston, I hope we keep moving in the right direction.

–Patrick

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Patrick Hruby, Jake Simpson, and Hampton Stevens 

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