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Rescuers search for victims at the scene of the tragedy in Gansu. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese authorities accuse ‘certain’ officials of putting profit before safety after ultramarathon tragedy

  • The country’s top disciplinary body has ordered an in-depth investigation into the event in Gansu after 21 competitors were killed in freezing mountain weather
  • Local authorities across the country have tried to cash in on the boom in endurance sports, but concerns are growing that some event hosts are cutting corners

The Chinese central government and state media have criticised “certain” officials for putting profit above safety when organising extreme sports events after 21 competitors died in an ultramarathon.

The country’s top disciplinary watchdog has also ordered the provincial authorities to carry out an in-depth investigation into Saturday’s event, after runners, most of whom were not carrying warm weather clothing, were hit by icy rain on the mountain trail.

The 100km Yellow River Stone Forest Park event in the northwestern province of Gansu had been billed as one of the most challenging events in Chinese sporting history and attracted a total of 172 competitors.

The competitors faced hail, freezing rain and strong winds on an 8km (5-mile) section of the trail that was the most challenging part of the course and was over 2,000 metres (6,500ft) above sea level. The victims, many of whom suffered hypothermia, included some of the country’s best long-distance runners.


21 runners die in freezing weather during ultramarathon in northwestern China

21 runners die in freezing weather during ultramarathon in northwestern China

According to survivors, there were no supplies available on that section of the course, which involved an 1,000-metre ascent, and they said the terrain was so steep that motorbikes could not reach it.

Marathons and ultra-long-distance races have grown in popularity in China over recent years and some remote and underdeveloped regions have promoted extreme sporting competitions as part of their official tourism development strategy.

Without naming government officials in Gansu, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s top disciplinary watchdog, published a commentary on its website on Sunday criticising “certain” officials who were too eager to profit from extreme sporting events without ensuring proper safety measures were in place.

It said about 30 marathons had been organised across China last month alone, attracting nearly 300,000 participants. The winner of the Yellow River Stone Forest Park event in Baiyin, Gansu province, was expected to receive 15,000 yuan (US$2,300) as prize money while other finishers were promised a 1,600 yuan subsidy.

Harrowing race for life as Chinese ultramarathon turns deadly

“While marathon events are shooting up across the nation, some [local governments] are organising these events to cash in on the economic potential … Certain event [organisers] are eyeing the economic benefits and are reluctant to invest in support and safety,” the commentary said.

“Some organising corporations are so anxious to cash in by luring in athletes with lavish prize money but they aren’t qualified to host high-risk sports events.”

The CCDI questioned if the organising committee of the Gansu ultramarathon had thoroughly considered the risks involved, had made sure that athletes could be properly supplied and put proper safety mechanisms in place to deal with extreme weather.

The disciplinary watchdog has ordered the provincial authorities to carry out an in-depth probe and called for thorough reflection over the “shocking death toll”.

One of the survivors pictured in hospital. Photo: Reuters

“The death toll of this sporting competition has exceeded 10 per cent. There must be a thorough investigation to find out its causes and hold the relevant [parties] accountable in order to serve the victims and the public justice. The loss of 21 lives must serve an adequate warning to all,” it said.

Meanwhile, it emerged that a local shepherd had helped to save six of the runners by sheltering them and lighting a fire.

The shepherd, Zhu Keming, was resting in a mountain cave on Saturday afternoon and was woken by a loud scream from one of the runners, the Beijing News reported.

Zhu gave the runner a blanket and lit a fire in the cave, and four other runners later joined them.

A sixth runner, Zhang Xiaotao, told the newspaper that Zhu had carried him to the cave after finding him passed out on the route.

“The rain felt like hail, piece by piece, and it hurt when it hit my body. I have never seen any weather like this before,” Zhang said.

“There were no trees around and beneath me were just ravines. It was very dangerous.”

Zhang started to lose sensation in his body halfway to the summit and could only muster enough strength to pull up a thermo blanket to cover himself before passing out.

Around 1,200 people took part in the rescue effort. Photo: Reuters

The six runners were eventually picked up by local firemen and medical staff at around 7pm. In total 1,200 people were involved in the rescue effort.

The tragedy has shaken up the Gansu provincial government and prompted provincial Communist Party boss Yin Hong and governor Ren Zhenhe to call urgent meetings and attend on-site rescue missions, state media reported.

The race has been organised for the past four years by authorities in Jingtai county and Baiyin and was run by Gansu Shengjing Sports Culture Development Company.

Media reports said the firm, which has 22 employees, is involved in advertising, marketing and organising sporting events.

China’s trail scene running back to ‘old normal’ with large-scale events

On Sunday Baiyin city party chief Su Jun called for a government-wide reflection to learn from the tragedy,according to Baiyin Daily. 

Zhang Xuchen, mayor of Baiyin, bowed in apology to victims’ families on Sunday, saying: “This is a public safety incident caused by sudden change of local weather. As the event organiser, we are full of deep regret and remorse. We apologise to the families of the victims and injured [athletes] and our condolences go to you. The provincial government has also set up an investigation task force to follow up the investigation.”

Baiyin city government officials are now working with family members of the 21 victims to arrange compensation., an online news portal, reported that the families would split a 10 million yuan insurance payout.

Among the victims were Liang Jing and Huang Guanjun, two of China’s best long-distance runners.

Liang won China’s Ultra Gobi race in 2018 and came second in the Hong Kong 100 ultra trail race in 2019. That year Huang won the hearing-impaired event at the national paralympic games.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Watchdog seeks probe into gansu race agony