NEW YORK -- When Mary Wittenberg arrived at the Broadway Ballroom of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square for the Sports Business Awards on Wednesday night, her initial feeling was one of honor.
The 2010 ING New York City Marathon was nominated for Sports Event of the Year, an achievement she felt was tremendous in and of itself.
Up against some real heavy-hitters, including the NBA All-Star Game, the NCAA Final Four, and the Winter X-Games, few in the New York Road Runners camp expected a victory.
Wittenberg, however, believed.
"Four years ago, when we hosted the Olympic Trials, I really felt, ‘Oh man, we should have been nominated,'" Wittenberg said. "The last few years, I kept thinking that's a big goal and we should be nominated, so when we were, we were thrilled. When we got here I thought, ‘When you look at 2010, so much came together in that year's marathon. I think we can win this thing.'"
If the marathon teaches anything, race in and race out, it's that anything is possible.
But even when New York Jets owner Woody Johnson pulled the card from the gray envelope and revealed that the New York City Marathon had won the award, it touched off a celebration among the NYRR staff that was equal parts elation and surprise.
More than any of that, the victory was historic.
For the first time at these awards, recognition was bestowed upon a participatory sport. In a room filled with hundreds of sports executives, agents, and marketers, seeing the likes of Edna Kiplagat and Shalane Flanagan trumping projected images of Blake Griffin jumping a car in the slam dunk contest, Mike Krzyzewski cutting down the nets after another national championship, and Shaun White grabbing big air in super-pipe carries enormous impact.
Do you think it was mere coincidence that Subway, a major sponsor of the New York City Marathon, also took home an award, beating out Papa John's, Phillips-Van Heusen and T-Mobile for Sports Sponsor of the Year?
"I think it's a really big statement," Wittenberg said. "I think this is the beginning of people in the sports business world understanding the power of participatory sports. It's a big deal, and this reflects our world where every day is about participation, whether it be social media or sports."
The victory was equally important for the running industry. Through cooperation with Mayor Mike Bloomberg's office, the marathon produced approximately $340 million in economic activity for the City and in excess of $30 million for charities in 2010.
While the overarching sport of track and field may be struggling for attention in the saturated American sports market and to shed the stigma of its historical link to doping, affirmation of the New York City Marathon is proof positive that there is still tremendous interest and value in the stories of perseverance at the core of distance running.
"Again, it's huge," Wittenberg said. "When you see Edna Kiplagat crossing the finish line or Shalane (Flanagan) going to the ground, those images are every bit as compelling as the images in any other sport. Anything we can do to help people know what a powerful and compelling and emotional sport this is, from the front of the pack to the back of the pack, that's what we want to do."
Perhaps the most compelling story presented during the 2010 race was that of Edison Peña, who showed the world how the sheer will and determination that enabled him to survive 69 days trapped in a copper mine 2,300 feet below the surface of the Atacama Desert near Copiapó, Chile could also carry the man to remarkable athletic achievement.
When Peña crossed the finish line in Central Park some 5 hours, 40 minutes, and 51 seconds after he started on the Verrazano Bridge, he became the most important marathoner of 2010 and provided a lasting image of the power of running.
"Edison Peña, that situation and his coming to New York and his representing all that we stand for, was a moment of a lifetime. We were so lucky to get to celebrate him and I certainly think it was good for the whole industry. I'm sure it was a decisive factor in tonight's award and got us that broader relevance."
The New York City Marathon's victory here took on an added element of significance. It should be noted that on a night when tennis pioneer and women's rights advocate Billy Jean King was present with the Lifetime Achievement Award, Wittenberg was the only female executive to accept one of the 15 awards.
"It's hugely gratifying," Wittenberg said. "It's a team effort at New York Road Runners through and through, and I'm so proud of our team because we're half women. I'm also proud to represent a sport that is half women. Tonight was really special because of what Billy Jean started. She inspired all of these women to be athletes and now women are involved in business and she's been every bit of a force in that way."
The bar of excellence, both for the New York City Marathon and for the running industry, has now been raised for 2011 and beyond. Wittenberg wouldn't want it any other way.
"As Billy Jean says, and how I say to our team all of the time, pressure is a privilege," she said, "So bring it on!"