Bloodsport in Boston

Apr 17, 2013, 07:25 IST | Hemal Ashar

Terror attack turning point in event celebrating the human spirit

Terror reached the Boston marathon finish line on April 14, Sunday (Monday for Indians) as two successive bomb blasts claimed three lives (as of now) and left more than 100 runners and spectators injured. The strike that ripped the soul out of a race, synonymous with the celebration of the human spirit, proved that the marathon might be one of the hardest sporting events to secure.

The Marathon finish line bridge is seen on Boylston Street on April 16, 2013 in Boston, Massachusetts. Security is especially tight in the city after two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Marathon, killing three people and injuring at least 141 others. Pic/AFP

Thousands of participants, hundreds of spectators, a route that spans 42 km often through meandering city streets and crowded starting and finishing lines, plus high visibility make the marathon especially difficult to protect, unlike maybe a stadium or building which could be locked down as a result of a perceived threat.

Harmander Singh (l) with Fauja Singh

“Maybe, challenging is the right word,” says Vivek Singh of Procam, race organisers of the Standard Chartered Mumbai Marathon which finished 10 years in its 2013 edition. “If you are talking about secure as in sanitising the place, yes, it is very challenging because of the nature of the event," said Singh even as he said that what happened in Boston, "is hugely tragic because a cause for celebration of the spirit has turned into a day for despair and sadness.”

Police units assemble along the Boston Public Garden on April 16, 2013, a day after two bombs wreaked havoc at the Boston Marathon. Pic/AFP

Singh talks about the blanket security that is thrown over the Mumbai marathon, and says that metal detectors, frisking, dog squads and baggage scanners are all part of the marathon experience now. For Delhi’s Dr Ashish Roy (81) familiar face (and feet!) of the Mumbai marathon, who has notched up 115 full marathons (42 km) to his name, Boston is, “Simply shocking. This blast has ripped the soul out of a city that is known as the Mecca of running,” says Dr Roy who had run the Boston Marathon when the race itself turned 100 in 1996. “I can say without doubt that this is the best marathon in the world.

Vivek Singh of Procam

I remember finishing late afternoon in chilly conditions. The finish line is quite an open area so it is surprising that devices were planted there, somebody managed to put them there without anybody noticing.” The experienced runner also added that the bombs were, “timed to go off at about four hours into the 42-km race, it is obviously a time when a large amount of runners are coming in towards the finish, so somebody had done their calculations to cause maximum damage,” finished the doc who added that he is, “off to the US in May as I am to run a marathon in Alexandria (near Washington) on May 25. Terror will not stop us.”

“My sentiments exactly,” London-based Harmander Singh, marathoner and running coach said as he prepares to run his 29th consecutive London marathon on Sunday, April 21. Harmander (53), who, incidentally coaches the legendary Fauja Singh (102) calls the Boston terrorists, “not human, mindless idiots who are spreading the hate.” Says the coach who has a running club called, ‘Sikhs and the City’, “On Thursday, Fauja and I are going to visit the Boston stall at the Marathon Expo which happens prior to the London Marathon.

There, we will pay a tribute to Boston victims and then, on Sunday, my club runners and I will compete in black armbands.” The loudest message though, will come from the sound of feet hitting road, as, “our running will show that nobody will be cowered into submission by such acts.” Harmander also says that he would try and, “carry a flag with me on my run, with Boston emblazoned on it, a Boston flag to signify that the human spirit will always prevail.”

This coach, conceded though that, “London, coming so soon after Boston, there is bound to be apprehension and the bombings would be on most minds at the race, but I am so proud to be from a city where the event is organised so well and there is every precaution taken during the event. We had an excellent London Olympics last year too.

Having said that, of course, I realise that in this day and time, one has to be very vigilant,” he added. Harmander also had a word of praise for Mumbai, “which organises a great event, Fauja was at the Marathon this year.” The runner who has competed in Chicago, New York, Paris, Berlin to name a few, says, “I really want to add Boston to my roster. It is one of the great races, a marathon major. I have run 66 full marathons to date and London would be my 67th.”

Incidentally, Harmander and a team of runners ran in New York post the 9/11 terror attacks, specifically to raise awareness of Sikhs as a different ethnic group from Muslims. He adds that, “Marathon is such a binding force, it unites rather than divides.”

Though there is an overwhelming feeling of sadness and shock that pervades the running community everywhere, marathoners are still saying stoically that running again is the only answer that would be speak louder than those explosions. Through all that courage and tenacity though comes the feeling that like everywhere in the world, the marathon, an event that can hold a city in its grip of gumption and glory, has lost its innocence today.

Running Boston in Space

In April 2007, astronaut Sunita Williams ran the Boston marathon while orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station (ISS). She had qualified for the Boston Marathon by posting a good time of three hours, 29 minutes and 57 seconds at Houston in 2006. She was at the International Space Station when the Marathon was being run, so the only option was to run it in space on a treadmill which she did. Sunita’s bib number was 14,000, which Williams taped to the front of her treadmill. Sunita finished in a time of 4:24m. - Sunita Williams, the astronaut

Relief for the family man
Filmmaker Nikhil Advani is a relieved man. His wife Suparna who is in Boston since July 2012 on study leave at the Harvard Kennedy School with their daughter Keya, called to say they’re safe. Says Nikhil, “The moment I heard about the explosions I rang up my wife. Both she and my daughter Keya are fine.” Nikhil admits it’s strange to hear of such a ghastly incident happening in the US. “But who are we to be judgmental when we have so many terror-related problems to deal with?” he asks. Nikhil Advani - As told to Subhash K Jha

Memories of a City
Vivek Jain, former chairman of the Royal Western India Turf Club (RWITC) says “I hold Boston especially close to my heart. I did my Masters in Business there (1981-'83). I remember its air of academic excellence, the Boston Green and the Charles River. It has a young, urban vibe to it, it is very international. Unlike New York, with its high rises and speed, Boston has a more laidback feel.” - Vivek Jain

Remembering Sri Lanka
A Tamil Tiger suicide bomber detonated a powerful device in April 2008 at the start of a marathon race in Sri Lanka, killing a dozen people including a Govt. minister and a former Olympic athlete. They were killed instantly as the blast ripped through crowds in Waliweriaya who were waiting for the highways minister, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, to flag off the runners. Former Olympic marathon runner KA Karunaratne and the national athletics coach, Lakshman de Alwis, were amongst the dead.

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