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Adding Security Along Marathons Would Be Herculean Task


Now, the twin bombings at the Boston Marathon struck at a very special type of sporting event. Marathons have been called the most democratic of sports, with the fewest physical barriers between athlete and spectator.

NPR's Mike Pesca examines whether the attack could permanently damage that accessibility.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: You can play Pebble Beach, but the greens fees are $495, cart not included. Pinehurst is cheaper. Bethpage Black has a longer wait. Those are the golf courses where they hold events called the U.S. Open. But really, the most open event in sports is the marathon

Running the marathon is competing in the same event as the world's greats on the same day, facing the same obstacles before the same fans. The openness of the marathon - open to amateurs, open to spectators, free to watch and accessible to all - may have made it a target, says Amby Burfoot, who the Boston Marathon 45 years ago.

AMBY BURFOOT: Those things do leave us open, and they are a threat; and we all recognize that. And I hope we'll all individually find our own personal, courageous ways of standing up to it.

PESCA: Burfoot, who was less than a mile from finishing this year's marathon when the bombs went off, can tell you that courage plays a role in the race; not just the grit to go 26.2, but in the very history of the marathon. The story goes it took its name from a battle won by the Athenians, who had begun the world's first great experiment in democracy. The marathon is still democratic. One must qualify for the Boston Marathon, but it is meritocratic, and it is populist.

The Boston Marathon starts off, literally, on Main Street; which turns into Union Street. It intersects with streets named Washington, Lincoln, Wilson and Grant; and also streets named for Longfellow and Emerson, who once wrote: Every sweet has its sour; every evil, its good.

Runners like Catherine Berryman, who finished this year's Boston marathon well before the bombs went off, counts running past homes and courthouses and drugstores as a virtue of her sport.

CATHERINE BERRYMAN: By definition, part of the joy of the marathon is that you're going through an area that's open to public.

PESCA: It is also attended by the public, for free. Catherine Berryman worries that spectators may be cowed.

BERRYMAN: A friend of mine who is a marathoner said that, you know, while she will continue to run, it's going to make her feel that she doesn't want her loved ones to come out and cheer for her.

PESCA: It seems impossible to want everyone who wants to cheer - and by the way, at marathons they only cheer; never boo. Richard Finn, who was a spokesman for the New York City Marathon for the past 14 years, says the event is unique, which has always been a source of celebration. Now it's a cause for concern.

RICHARD FINN: You don't have turnstiles, and you don't have controlled access points to most points along the 26.2 miles of any course.

PESCA: So what about confining a marathon, making spectators go through metal detectors and secured areas?

BURFOOT: And that can't happen. It just simply can't happen.

PESCA: Amby Burfoot.

BURFOOT: It's like ticketing the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade or St. Patrick's Day or - the marathon's got 52.4 miles of sidewalks, when you count both sides, and it just can't be screened.

PESCA: There is a well-accepted notion that it is the very openness of a society that terrorists exploit and use against it. The marathon will now be put to the test; luckily, it is an event synonymous with endurance.

Mike Pesca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.