Toronto loves its sports teams; just head down to the square in front of the Air Canada Centre, or Nathan Phillips Square around playoff time for proof of this. This affinity, though, tends to come with limits. Despite its enthusiasm for sports throughout the rest of the year, Torontonians adopt an attitude towards marathons that is at its best cavalier, and at worst, downright spiteful: in 2009, runners were booed by drivers fed up with road closures; the Sun said that “marathon is actually a four-letter word,” and complained of a “marathon of headaches.” In 2010, the late Rob Ford suggested that marathoners ought to run laps of city parks rather than on Toronto streets, while in 2014 current Mayor John Tory complained that marathons were “creating nightmarish problems” and said (of an event that draws runners from all over the world, brings in millions in economic benefit, and brings people out of their homes and into public spaces with their neighbourhood communities) that “it is time in a big city like this that the public was placed first.” It begs the question: what did marathons ever do to Toronto?
Whereas in cities like New York, Chicago, and London (the crown jewels of the marathon world) marathons are city-wide events that engage runners and non-runners alike, Torontonians tends to view marathons as an inconvenience, something that stands in the way of the city’s functionality. “Toronto’s a running city,” says marathoner Mike Anderson, owner of BlackToe Running, an independent running store at King West and Bathurst. Being a running city, though, extends only to the running community itself in Toronto and, unlike other major cities, has garnered little enthusiasm in the non-running community. “One of the things I find most frustrating is that other cities embrace it,” says Anderson. “It’s a little ridiculous that people [in Toronto] are upset that there’s more traffic at 6am on a Sunday.”
When Anderson, who has lived and ran in Toronto since 1989, ran the New York City Marathon, he remembers crossing a bridge into Manhattan and being greeted by crowds ten to fifteen people deep, cheering so loudly that he could barely hear himself breathe. In comparison, he says, “Toronto’s pretty quiet. For whatever reason, the city’s not behind [the marathon] yet.”
At first glance, it may seem like the pedantic complaints of the running community. But it sits within a larger trend of Toronto’s struggle to conceive of itself as a world-class city (“the city loves to self-flagellate over how it stacks up against the rest of the world,” writes Ashley Csanady in the Post). One metric by which to judge a city, though imprecise, is to look at its marathon. “Every city worthy of the name has to have a marathon,” says Alan Brookes, head of the Canada Running Series and the head organizer of the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Indeed, a list of the world’s greatest marathons and a list of the world’s greatest city would tend to look nearly identical.
Elitist and niche though they may be, marathons are both tourist attractions and showcases of the city’s urban environment. Unlike other sports, the quality of a marathon depends directly on the environment it takes place in, making a city marathon an event which depends on the urban space and design of a city. Sport — which includes marathons — is a vibrant part of urban life in major cities, and it is significant that Toronto lags behind other world-class cities that have embraced marathons and turned them into cornerstone events in the city’s calendar. The question of marathons is implicitly a question about a city’s relationship with sports within its urban space.
In 2015, Paris Mayor Ann Hidalgo stood at the start line of the Paris Marathon and issued a proclamation that is now famous among marathon enthusiasts and those who work to organize city marathons. “Paris is yours,” she said. “It is the most beautiful city in the world, and you make it more beautiful.”
Mayor Hidalgo’s opening proclamation has come to exemplify, for organizers like Brookes, the ideal attitude towards city marathons. A well-organized and successful city marathon “puts a city on the map,” says Brookes. Over the past decade, marathons have increased dramatically in popularity and participation levels. Between 2005 and 2013, there was a 36% increase in the estimated number of marathon finishers in the US. (Growth has been even more dramatic in developing countries like China, where marathon participation since 2009 has increased by 260%.)
With increased numbers, and an increased demand for courses that highlight a city’s best urban assets, planning the course — which, for many marathons is the biggest point of conflict with city administration, as it blocks traffic and forces road closures — is a balancing act. The big challenge, says Brookes, is “to develop city marathon courses that run through neighbourhoods with character that showcase the city, and where there is a maximum spectator draw — but without antagonizing residents, politicians, and stakeholders.”
Outside of traffic congestion, marathons tend to be beneficial to the city in which they’re held. Beyond the obvious benefits of a “fitter, healthier city” that Brookes says city marathons bring, there is economic and charity benefits as well: the 2015 New York City Marathon brought an estimated $415-million in economic benefit to the city, as well as generating $34.5-million raised for various charities. Even at smaller, lower-profile marathons like the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, the economic benefits are large: Toronto draws in somewhere in the range of $25- to $30-million in economic activity as a result of the marathon.
Despite the benefits, Toronto has had a complicated relationship with marathons — with many, like Anderson, feeling that Torontonians don’t support running events like the marathon. “I’d say the verdict’s out, the jury’s out,” says Brookes, who says that it really comes down to the individual: “If people like festivals and events, then they will help us,” he says. “If they don’t, they’ll hate us.”
But online, Torontonians are quick to voice their distaste for major road races. “Marathons f***ing suck, go run into the lake,” said one Reddit user. “We have more interesting things to do in Toronto than watch people run at a moderate pace in a straight line for a few hours,” said another. One took aim at marathoners themselves, saying “people who run marathons are the same people who make going to high park to see the cherry blossoms a day trip.” The notion that a marathon is a city-wide event seems lost on most Torontonians: “Most of these marathons are for the participants to accomplish, not to cheer for” wrote Reddit user Bobzyurunkle. “Family and friends are the perfect spectator for these, why should strangers do it?”
Ambivalence towards the marathon goes deeper than the grumblings of city residents. Marathons have, on occasion, been matters that have pestered City Hall. Since 2000, two major marathons have been run in the city’s downtown core — the Toronto Marathon (currently sponsored by Goodlife) and the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon, first held in 2000. While the Toronto Marathon is older and has traditionally laid claim to being the city’s ‘official’ marathon, since 2005 the Waterfront Marathon has drawn both more runners, more spectators, and has been considered a superior event. (In 2015, the Waterfront Marathon was awarded an IAAF Gold Label, acknowledging that it meets certain athletic standards.)
For over a decade, the two marathons were direct competitors: they ran within three weeks of one another each fall, battling for participants and cultivating a great deal of ill-will among city politicians, right-wing commentators, and frustrated motorists. By 2009, the City was actively trying to find a solution for what they saw as a problem: in January 2010, the city released titled “Establishment of One Toronto Marathon” in which they called for one of the marathons to be scrapped and folded into the other.
Unsurprisingly, neither Jay Glassman, organizer of the Goodlife Toronto Marathon, nor Brookes were willing to give up their race, and both remained recalcitrant to the idea of moving one of the marathons to the spring. (Eventually, under the implicit threat that the city might make the decision on its own, the Goodlife Toronto Marathon agreed to move to the spring.)
The largest source of conflict comes both from the way the city conceives of marathons and a fragmented decision-making process at the city level. Events like marathons are considered extraneous to the day-to-day business of city management — police officers responsible for traffic control and event security are paid-duty, which, though a small distinction is telling: for the City of Toronto, hosting marathons (and events like them) are considered on-the-side events, rather than part of its regular responsibilities.
On top of this, the city lacks a central department responsible for sporting events, which creates conflicts between departments — transit officials, for example, want the marathons run earlier, while those concerned with noise bylaws want marathons to be run closer to the midday. On committees, inter-departmental conflicts can clog the decision making process, and dissuades marathon supporters from fighting for the events: “If I’m a junior member of one of these committees, there’s absolutely no upside to fighting for it,” says Brookes. “All it’s going to get is another department that hates me.”
In 2015, The10and3.com named Toronto the second most miserable sports city in North America. For Toronto runners, this attitude seems to extend towards marathons — events that in cities like Chicago, Houston, and Vancouver are attended in large numbers. One metric that is used to judge community support is the estimated number of non-running spectators that come out to watch the race. The Waterfront Marathon, in comparison, draws in just over 100,000 spectators — a number that seems large until you contrast it with comparably cities: despite its downtown population being one quarter of Toronto’s, the Vancouver Marathon draws 92,000 spectators; the Houston Marathon boasts that it draws “a couple hundred thousand spectators” every year; the Chicago Marathon (a city with a similar population to Toronto) boasts an astounding attendance on crammed streets — part of the reason that the Chicago Marathon has been elevated to be considered one of the world’s major city marathons (a group that includes the New York, Boston, London, Berlin, and Tokyo marathons).
Toronto’s reputation when it comes to marathons isn’t great — runners tend to feel that, historically, the city hasn’t done much to foster a welcoming atmosphere for running events, and that community support for running is lacking. Is that still the case? Brookes is optimistic that this attitude is being left in the past. “Thirty years ago, it was true, but not anymore,” he says. “If you’d asked me ten, even five years ago, I’d be less bullish, but we’re really turning a corner.” On paper at least, Brookes is doing much to help change Toronto’s reputation as a poor city for marathons: in addition to the gold label his marathon received in 2015, they have had significant increases in terms of spectator support.
Even so, as the sport of running and interest in marathons grows in Toronto, so too does the discontent. “Marathon racing is growing like crazy,” says Anderson, “but the people who aren’t doing it don’t want that to happen for some reason.” Within certain vocal and outspoken circles of Torontonians, it seems clear that marathons are something to be tolerated rather than enjoyed by the public. “There’s segments who are welcoming, there’s segments who are ambivalent,” says Anderson. “It’s the people who are vocally against it that are the problem.” That problem is intensified when you consider that those circles include Toronto’s last two mayors.
The road closures inherent in organizing a city marathon drew the ire of noted car-enthusiast Rob Ford, who during his 2010 mayoral campaign said, “I think we’re using the roads one too many times, and it’s really frustrating for people trying to get in and out of the city,” and instead proposed that marathons be staged in High Park or Downsview Park (Ford backed off the idea after he was elected, which among marathon organizers and runners alike is a logistical non-starter). John Tory has, more recently, used traffic to justify the idea of reducing the number of road races (all of which are charity fundraisers) saying that he was “willing to take the heat” for saying no. “David Miller once told me that for a major city-wide project and any description to be successful,” says Brooks, “it needs strong central leadership.” Whether or not that strong central leadership exists (as far as marathons are concerned) remains to be seen — organizers like Brookes are still waiting for an “Ann Hidalgo moment” that can take marathons in Toronto from a niche event to something with broad appeal.
There is a certain subset of Toronto residents who are quick to wrap themselves in the flag of ‘war on the car’ — as if such a thing ever existed (and, even if it did, that it would at all be a bad thing.). The way Torontonians have interacted with both the concept and physical realities of marathons being run on city streets betrays a larger degree of apathy towards large-scale community engagement. What’s more troubling is that this apathy, reflected in vitriolic debates about bike lanes and condo development and low-income housing, seems more and more like Toronto’s default setting.
When drivers complain that they are inconvenienced by race-related road closures, they fail to realize that having one trip obstructed is the implicit trade-off with a community of runners who generally work around them on the other 364 days of the years (some early morning runners, for example, do so largely for the benefit of decreased traffic at 5:30am). I’ll admit that there’s a bit of self-interest at play here: even if few people understand the realities of training for a marathon, when (if all goes to plan) I run the Waterfront Marathon this fall, I don’t think it’s even remotely too much to ask that I don’t get booed. For runners, after a year of dodging cars, waiting for traffic, and running in parks and along bike paths, it would be nice that for three and a half hours on a Sunday morning in October, that the roads — as they are in Paris, as they are in Boston, and as they are in New York — were ours.