Post-Boston Marathon, How Races Are Heightening Security

From Pittsburgh - which had a recent scare, to London to New York City, organizers are taking precautions. But are they going too far?

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Eduardo Munoz / REUTERS

Police officers at a race organized by New York Road Runners at Central Park in New York City, on April 21, 2013.

When two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Patrice Matamoros knew better than almost anyone what it feels like to have the sanctity of a road race disrupted.

Three years ago, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Marathon was notified one hour into the race that a suspicious microwave had been left near the finish line. Coming two days after an attempted car bombing in Times Square, everyone was on high alert. Officials moved quickly to cordon off the finish line and reroute thousands of runners.What officials had feared was an explosive device, however, turned out to be a discarded appliance that someone had unceremoniously dumped along the race route the night before.

No matter. Organizers had learned their lesson, which was only reinforced last year when the University of Pittsburgh endured an unprecedented number of bomb threats — sometimes two a day. Marathon administrators were summoned by the Office of Homeland Security to brainstorm safety strategies. “We have bomb threat plans, we’ve created comprehensive crisis communications plans, we sweep for bombs,” says Matamoros. “Since 2010 we have taken a very proactive approach to security. We have been preparing a lot.”

It seems certain that many more cities will be following Pittsburgh’s lead in the wake of the carnage in Boston. When the London marathon followed close on Boston’s heels, law enforcement deployed 40% more officers than usual.

Many competitions are banning backpacks and replacing opaque “gear bags” with clear plastic ones to hold athletes’ personal possessions. Cincinnati’s marathon, scheduled for Sunday, will be protected by undercover officers and bomb-sniffing dogs; Cleveland’s May 19 race will have zero tolerance for unaccompanied bags.

(MORE: After the Boston Marathon, Can Fans Feel Safe at Sporting Events?)

Even already-vigilant Pittsburgh has further tightened security at its race, which takes place Sunday. No spectators will be allowed in designated perimeters surrounding the start and finish lines, and some side streets will be off-limits. Patrols have already started doing route drive-throughs, looking for anything amiss or areas that could be potential trouble spots.

The heightened security precautions go hand in hand with a fundraising campaign for Boston: Pittsburgh runners who make a donation on race day will receive a “Boston Strong” wristband to wear during their journey. To further the feel-good factor, sponsor Dick’s Sporting Goods is flying in more than 40 Boston participants whose race ended abruptly when the explosions ignited.

(PHOTOS: Images: Joy and Relief in Boston After Bombing Suspect’s Arrest)

Meanwhile, riders taking part in Sunday’s TD Five Boro Bike Tour of New York City are prohibited from bringing along any bag much bigger than a fanny pack, leading organizers to advise parents to “bring a diaper in your trailer.”

All the enhanced security measures are making some athletes wonder whether sporting events have taken things to the extreme.

“Am I alone in thinking this bit of ‘security theater’ is a bit much of an overreaction to the events in Boston?” asked one commenter on a triathlon forum.

“You are not alone,” answered someone else.

Another person noted:

“You can check all the bags, make them clear, you can run bomb sniffing dogs before the race, but no matter what you do it doesn’t prevent someone who wants to set off a bomb from setting one off in an open area. You can’t make an open field/open race course secure, well you can but I don’t think anyone wants to pay the cost of that race. How many races happen a year, between all the running races all the tris and everything else. 20k+?? [A]nd this has been going on for how many years with not one incident? Out of all these races for all these years we’ve had one bombing, yet now for some reason people feel unsafe going to a race. I don’t get it.”

Then there’s the more cautious contingent. Luckily for me — and I’m hopelessly biased — my brother is among them. “Annoying,” he says of all the new rules. “Although I can’t say I disagree w/the additional security measures.”

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