Tom Grilk of the Boston Athletic Association (Getty Images) © Copyright

Past experiences invaluable for Boston Marathon organisers in moving race to September

Drawing from the Boston Athletic Association’s vast well of experience, CEO Tom Grilk believes preparation is key to helping them and other race and event organisers navigate a route through the current Covid-19 pandemic.

The global crisis, which is currently impacting the health, jobs and livelihoods of countless millions around the planet, represents an unanticipated and daunting challenge for so many event organisers, many of whom have had to cancel or postpone races and meetings.

In the case of the BAA, the Boston Marathon had no choice but to postpone its scheduled 20 April event and have opted to run the rearranged race on 14 September.

Without question, Grilk acknowledges that a global pandemic is an unprecedented challenge for the Boston Marathon to come to terms with, although he insists dealing with enormous obstacles is not an alien concept for the race.

“The most striking and awful example of having to deal with the unexpected goes back to 2013 when two bombs went off at the finish line,” says Grilk of the terrorist attack which killed three people and left several hundred injured.

“Of course, there is security planning in place but you never quite know in what way the trouble will come,” he says. “What we found most important was having a level of preparedness to deal with trouble in a somewhat structured way.

“In the months leading up to the Boston Marathon, we always meet with leadership groups and public safety officials to talk through scenario planning. You can be sure whatever we have planned for won’t be the thing that will happen, but it gives people in the team the intellectual agility to address problems.

“We work together with government agencies and the security forces – police, fire, etc – to provide that level of preparedness to be ready for almost anything that might come. For us, it has been helpful having that level of structure around our thinking.”

To offer further clarity around decision-making under stress, the BAA adopts a prescribed strategy based around three core principles.

Firstly, if something happens, be as clear as you can as to who you owe a duty to at that moment. Secondly, what factors can you control to make things better and, thirdly, be clear what you can’t control and try not to prevent others from doing their jobs.

To illustrate the final point, Grilk once again cites the example of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

“To some extent there was only so much you could do,” adds Grilk, who has served on the BAA for 33 years. “What the situation required was people who were trained to act in that scenario to do their thing.

“You need to know when to lead and when to speak up, but also when to be quiet. In 2013 we knew our duty was to address the needs of runners and volunteers. We also knew we didn’t know how to catch criminals. The race finish area was a crime scene and there was a very important job for the right authorities to focus on catching the criminals. And we also knew there were huge medical responsibilities to the people who were terribly injured. We focused on what we needed to do and let others concentrate on what they needed to do.

“We were also acutely aware that the attack was not on the Boston Marathon or the Boston Athletic Association, but it was an attack on the city of Boston, the USA and our way of life.

“We knew we had nothing to say about that; that was a much broader conversation, which was the responsibility of the local state leaders.”

Part of that preparedness Grilk talks about has already served them well in the current global crisis. The Boston Marathon did postpone the 124th running of the world’s oldest annual marathon to September but the organisation was well equipped to cope with government restrictions in the wake of Covid-19.

Two years ago the BAA transferred all its data system to the iCloud and made it available to all staff on to a sales force platform. With all the sharing tools in place, this has allowed the Boston Marathon organising team to “transition seamlessly” to the new demands of working from home.

In fact, Grilk has been hugely impressed by how staff have rallied to the challenge of organising the hastily postponed event.

“In their suddenly distributed world environment, the team are going extraordinarily well,” he says. “To make a 30,000 runner event in April suddenly happen in September is not easy. How do you take an event of this size and find room for it at an immensely busy time in Boston? Working from home has not been a vacation; it has been as an intense a period of weeks as one could imagine. Our staff have been phenomenal in addressing the issues, not to mention our sponsors, the public safety officials and the medical community. Moving the event from April to September is a very substantial job and an enormous amount has already been squared off.”

Grilk stops short of giving other event organisers advice in how to steer a route through these troubled times but insists if they stay true to their core philosophies, then this is a great starting point.

“We have followed the same principles for making decisions in tough times that we always have,” he explains. “We devote our energy to help those we have the greatest obligation towards, such as the competitors, race organise and the wider community,” he explains.

“Many race organisers have faced no option – they’ve either had to cancel or postpone events. Some things we can’t control but our duty remains to put on an event that represents a gratifying experience for runners, volunteers and the people who live in the community. Other race organisers may have different principles but there is no need to think that they too couldn’t guide their events in a sensible and rational way in the future.”

Steve Landells for World Athletics