Xiaoshan Huang, Chingman and Chung Yut-yiu | Radio Free Asia
Officials say safety standards must be improved, as journalists suggest corruption was involved
China’s top sporting body has called on organizers to boost safety measures following the deaths of 21 ultramarathon runners in adverse weather conditions in a mountainous region of the western province of Gansu at the weekend.
The General Administration of Sport made the comments amid widespread criticism of the company that organized the Yellow River Stone Forest Mountain Ultramarathon, which was marred by the deaths of 21 runners in a 100-kilometer (60-mile) trail run amid hail, freezing rain, and high winds.
As of 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, 151 were safe, although eight had suffered minor injuries. The bodies of 21 were recovered from the trail.
Among them were top cross-country runner Liang Jing and paralympic marathon star Huang Guanjun.
Local officials apologized to the families of those who died, and said the deaths were caused by “a sudden change in local weather conditions.”
The race was organized by Gansu Shengjing Sports Culture Development Co., a company with just 22 employees and interests spanning the manufacturing, environmental, agricultural, and facilities management sectors.
The Guangzhou-based Nanfang Daily newspaper said the ratio of staff to participants in such events was generally at least 1:5, but that Shengjing Sports had tried to run the event with just 22 employees and 172 runners.
“Mountainous cross-country marathons are riskier and more challenging than urban road events, and require a much higher ratio of staff to participants,” the paper said in a post to the social media platform Weibo.
“Even if all 22 people were involved in managing this event, how would they be able to predict the weather, manage the supply stations in a scientific manner, fully review rescue plans, or carry out emergency rescues in a timely manner?” the paper said.
It said the leg of the race between the second and third check-in points was the toughest section, climbing 1,000 meters over eight kilometers, and yet no staff, supply stations, or tents were installed on it.
It said mandatory equipment inspections weren’t carried out in accordance with regulations, while life-saving equipment wasn’t considered mandatory.
Many turned back
Many runners turned back in fear for their personal safety on this section, the paper said.
“Among the top six runners who chose to continue the race, only one was rescued by a shepherd and survived,” it said. “Most of the runners who died went down between checkpoints two and four.”
“If the race had been canceled in time, many lives could have been saved,” the paper said.
In comments under the paper’s post on Weibo, user @face-to-face_hermit commented: “All of these competitions are just a way for the organizers to make money,” while @the_wind_blows_away_thoughts_of_you commented that the organizers should be left on a mountainside with no help for a few hours to experience the agony that the runners did.
“Shivering all over, losing consciousness … dying with the feeling that nobody cares,” the user wrote.
“Shouldn’t the organizers be punished for this?” added user @the-zcy.
A member of the China Mountaineering Association surnamed Wang said a high-altitude event of more than two kilometers should ideally be staffed by more than 500 people.
“The technical specifications of an event of this kind need to be strictly followed, but because this event was an event sponsored by the local government, there was very limited investment,” Wang said.
“Also, they didn’t hire professionals to carry out some of the tasks,” Wang said.
An editorial in the Beijing News said organizers of marathons, which are hugely popular in China, are often more interested in attracting large numbers of competitors and making money than in safety issues.
“In short, the needs and enthusiasm of popular sports should be met and cared for, but events should not ‘run wild’ at the expense of safety,” the paper said.
China is in the grip of marathon fever, with figures released by the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA) showing that there 40 times more marathon events in 2018 than in 2014, in China.
High-profile events like the Shanghai marathon regularly hosting tens of thousands of runners.
State broadcaster CCTV said the Gansu deaths should serve as a “a wake-up call” to the organizers of such events.
“Route planning, safety guarantees, medical preparations, emergency rescue, food supplies, etc., need to be precise and foolproof,” the state broadcaster said in a broadcast commentary.
Survivors told state media that the weather had been forecast to range between 9 and 24C, and had been at around 18C for much of the day.
Survivor Wang Jinmin said he had lost all feeling in his limbs after his emergency blanket had been ripped from his hands in high winds.
“The wind was so strong; I just watched [the blanket] fly out of my hands,” Wang said. “I lost all my strength and had no feeling in my hands or feet.”
Rescue workers said the participants were particularly vulnerable, being clad only in short-sleeved running gear and shorts when they were drenched in freezing rain and pummeled by strong winds, resulting in hypothermia, shock, and muscle cramps.
A veteran Hong Kong said races in his city have also seen harsh weather conditions, including frost on the city’s highest peak, Tai Mo Shan, in the 2016 HK100 race, with runners trapped on the mountain for several hours.
But tighter safety regulations and better equipment meant that worse tragedies had been avoided so far, Wong Ho-Chung told RFA.
“Most athletes don’t think of trail-running as a particularly dangerous activity, but we should always keep in mind respect for the forces of nature, which can’t be controlled,” Wong said. “It’s impossible to predict sudden winds, rain, and thunderstorms.”
Suggestions of corruption
Some media reports also suggested that local officials could have taken some of the funding that could have been spent on equipping and staffing the race in the form of personal payments.
Calls to the Jingtai county government propaganda department and ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) county committee, which were both involved in sponsoring the race, rang unanswered during office hours on Monday.
A local journalist surnamed Wu said it was an open secret that high-profile events like marathons are a money-spinner for local officials.
“There are so many scams around,” Wu said. “Otherwise, why would so many corrupt officials run … big events like this?”
“There were only two volunteers at checkpoints two and three, and there was no drinking water, no warm clothes or tents,” he said. “That’s all you need to know, really.”