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Ruining the L.A. Marathon 

Preachers pressured City Hall to change it. Now the race faces uncertainties

Tuesday, Jun 16 2009
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The L.A. Marathon has never been world-class. The course is hilly and winds through the ugliest parts of the city, a festival of blights. It’s gone through three owners in six years, and the number of entrants is half of what Chicago and New York boast. It’s not a “runner’s marathon” but a very long parade of moisture-wicking wear.

And now it’s morphed into a flash point for religious leaders to browbeat City Hall, with probably more strife to come. Next year’s event is slipping toward turmoil, with officials at the L.A. Marathon failing to release or even hint at a date for next year.

The unsettled situation regarding this decades-old, major-metropolis marathon is extremely unusual; it’s keeping sponsors and runners in limbo, and is an indicator of how the key political players in the drama, City Councilman Tom LaBonge and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, have failed to clean up the marathon mess.

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As runner Shanna Moore wrote in an online petition calling for the marathon to return to its longtime date of a Sunday in March, “I proudly attend church on Sundays and often during the week, and I know firsthand that if someone wants to get to services, no once-a-year marathon is going to stop them. This is all ridiculous! Move the race back to a March Sunday or don’t have it at all. These ‘houses of worship’ should be ashamed of themselves!”

For years, the L.A. Marathon, like every other U.S. marathon (save the oldest, in Boston) has taken place on a Sunday. But the closed-off streets were, according to Father John S. Bakas of Pico-Union–based Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, “an infringement on our access and ability to worship on the sabbath,” which tied up “the whole city until 2 p.m.”

In 2004, according to religious leaders, then–mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa had promised them he would move the race to a different day. “He promised me that,” says the Rev. Jeong Song of Mijoo Peace Church in Koreatown.

With religious leaders increasingly insistent, a curious math began to emerge: The numbers of avid churchgoers and others purportedly stymied by street closures during the one-day marathon blossomed to one-quarter of L.A.’s 4 million people. “Using the most conservative estimates, 921,000 people are directly affected,” states Save Our Sabbaths, a group that includes Bakas, on its Web site.

Song, who has opposed the Sunday race for more than 14 years, says, “I told them it was 100,000 people impacted [who] cannot attend church” — a more modest figure but also inflated. By some estimates, the turnout for runners, volunteers and supporters of the marathon is upward of 200,000.

Last fall, the L.A. Marathon, a corporation, was bought by Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. Seizing the moment, the religious community spearheaded by Bakas — the self-proclaimed “biggest mouth and the most passionate” — shook its collective fist and finally prevailed. The 2009 marathon was set to take place on a federal holiday, a Monday, not a Sunday.

In the contract being negotiated by the city of Los Angeles and the McCourt Group, President’s Day in February was the suggested date — as most cities with hot weather hold their marathons in winter to spare the runners from the heat. The contract with McCourt was easily ratified by the Los Angeles City Council, with Villaraigosa’s blessing.

Everyone seemed happy — until the first “pre-planning” meeting, at which police, fire and transportation officials met at Councilman LaBonge’s office. There, somebody thought to ask senior transportation engineer Aram Sahakian about the street logistics of holding the marathon on President’s Day, February 16.

Incredibly, nobody on the vast staff of the 15-member Los Angeles City Council, which employs 320 personal assistants at an annual cost of about $20 million, had bothered to fully review that date with the transportation engineers before the council approved the deal. Instead, Sahakian tells L.A. Weekly, “It was done verbally at a meeting.”

Sahakian informed the pre-planning group that so many people work on President’s Day that he couldn’t recommend a race then. He envisioned a huge commuter-traffic mess. Sahakian, who has worked on the minutiae of road closures and preparations for the marathon for 10 years, says that the query “was just thrown out at us, asking for a recommendation.”

The only other “federal-holiday Monday” in the first part of the year was Memorial Day, May 25. And to the chagrin of runners, fans and residents, the city’s 23-year tradition of holding its race in early March was suddenly being shunned in favor of a marathon date during a much hotter season.

Despite an uproar, religious leaders — insisting on their mythical estimation that 1 million church-going residents would face road closures — refused to back down, citing barriers to religious freedom. Bakas’ loudest battle cry has been “Honor the contract” — a contract whose date was rejected because it had not been fully explored and was unfeasible. He exclaimed to L.A. Weekly, “Why would we have to work it out? It’s already worked out. The City Council voted. We have a contract.”

The weather stayed cool on May 25, and the runners did not face horrific heat. But the unprecedented uncertainty and controversy kept runners and viewers away in droves. The L.A. Marathon does not disclose the number of its registered runners. But in the past 10 years, according to its Web site, the average number of those who finish the race in a given year is 18,000. This year, fewer than 14,200 completed the marathon.

“Their argument doesn’t hold water. It doesn’t make any sense,” says Peter Abraham, director of the L.A. Marathon, of Bakas’ claim that blocking some streets one day out of 365 harms the churches’ ability to thrive.

Now, the issue over the 2010 race sits before the Los Angeles City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, headed by Councilman Bernard Parks. Parks tells the Weekly, “If the two groups [runners and church leaders] can come together and take care of it, that would be great.” He says it’s not up to the City Council to fix this, and that the McCourt Group is letting City Hall “take the blame.”

In fact, it is up to the City Council, which must now amend the contract it so badly botched, and settle on a date for next year’s marathon. And to make sure the council members ban the marathon on Sunday, Bakas and his Save Our Sabbaths posse have enlisted former mayor Richard Riordan, whom Bakas calls “just a private citizen who has been very helpful to us.” When asked if Riordan is lobbying the council, Bakas tells the Weekly, “I hope so.”

Notably, during the tenure of Riordan, a devout Catholic, the pragmatic mayor never stopped the race from taking place on a Sunday; Riordan was, in fact, a marathon enthusiast. The group’s other headliner lobbyist, Cardinal Roger Mahony, has written to council members, pushing them to ban a Sunday race.

LaBonge now argues that the race belongs on its original Sunday in March, saying, “I believe the best day of the week in L.A. is a Sunday morning.” He’s suggesting a “face-to-face dialogue” between the religious groups and the runners. After all, the runners are the ones forking over about $100 per person to participate, and in many cases they are traveling great distances to run the race here.

The runners are also the ones McCourt must woo in order for his acquisition to turn a profit. Many runners and race supporters, 5,000 of whom signed a petition in recent months, favoring the traditional Sunday in March, are furious. But LaBonge insists, “We have to have agreement from everybody.”

Bakas, whom few Angelenos had heard of before the contretemps, is clearly relishing his bizarrely granted, outsize power over the city, its traditions and dwellers. In an e-mail to council members Janice Hahn, Bill Rosendahl and LaBonge, Bakas compares holding the race on a Sunday to biblical bloodletting: “In this matter we WILL NOT IMITATE JESUS by putting our heads down and be led like ‘sheep to the slaughter.’ ”

Now, the Pasadena Marathon, whose fall 2008 debut was postponed until last February due to wildfires, is again scheduled for February next year, close to the traditional March date of the L.A. Marathon. Who knew a nimby turf war would move the money out to the suburbs?

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