A Chinese marathon runner’s race for the finish line was hampered on Sunday when a race volunteer forced her to grab the national flag as she was battling it out for victory. While many spectators criticised the stunt, and questioned whether it may have contributed to He Yinli’s defeat, it turned out that the organisers of the Suzhou marathon may have orchestrated it. He eventually finished five seconds behind her Ethiopian rival Ayantu Abera Demisse in the Suzhou marathon. Race marshals twice tried to press the flag onto her by running onto the track in the closing stages. The first attempt, around 500 metres from the finish was rebuffed, but – somewhat optimistically – the volunteer attempted to chase after the two professional athletes. Women’s 10km race in China offers hair, make-up, cupcakes and male models Soon afterwards a second volunteer ran on to the track and pushed the flag into her hands. The Chinese runner appeared uncertain what to do and eventually dropped the flag and resumed her sprint for the line – but was outpaced by Demisse. The race was televised by state broadcaster CCTV, and one of the commentators criticised the intervention, saying: “At this moment the athlete is gritting her teeth. Any interference off the track can influence her performance.” The incident also triggered a public outcry, with many arguing race officials should at least have waited until the athletes finished before handing out flags. But He was also forced to defend herself against accusations she had “thrown away” the national flag, the improper use of which can result in a three-year prison sentence. He, who has won several national races and represented the country at the 2014 Asian games, insisted she had not deliberately dropped it. In a post on the social media network Weibo, she wrote: “I didn’t throw it. The flag was soaked and my arms were stiff. It dropped during the arm swing. Sorry about that. I hope you can understand.” The race forms part of the Run China marathon series, which is run in association with CCTV and the Chinese Athletic Association. Suzhou Huantaihu Sport Development, which was responsible for Sunday’s race, has yet to comment on the flag incident, but one unnamed race worker told the media it was a requirement of the series. In an interview published on Pearl Video, the race worker said: “The first three runners should run with the national flag before reaching the finish line if they are Chinese.” Chinese tourists hold flag-raising ceremony on island in South China Sea At least one other Chinese runner is known to have been handed a flag during a Run China race. Li Zicheng, who finished fourth in the Beijing marathon, the highest placed Chinese athlete, was handed a flag as he approached the finishing line in September. Hu Shun, an experienced amateur marathon runner who has finished dozens of races in and out of China, said it was not a tradition for Chinese marathon organisers to hand out flags, but was a special requirement for this series. He added that most top athletes preferred to cross the finishing line before celebrating with the national flag. Despite the rainy conditions in the eastern city on Sunday, a total of 30,000 amateur and professional runners took part in the event. A running boom has swept China in recent years and distance running has become increasingly fashionable. At least 15 marathon or half marathon races were staged in China last weekend, including the Shanghai International Marathon. Last year more than 1,100 long distance events were held in cities across the country, according to the Chinese Athletic Association.