Over a month after the trail ultramarathon in Baiyin, a city in China’s Gansu province, when 21 runners were killed by extreme weather, the Chinese internet is still awash with anger and questions.
“Can ‘rare extreme weather’ really be responsible for a 12 percent death rate in a sporting event?” China News Weekly asked in a front-page feature. On Weibo, one user wrote: “21 Elite athletes lost their lives on a familiar race route, this kind of an accident, there is almost no questioning the fault of the athlete. … Many others online hold the same suspicions.”
The 100-kilometer (62-mile) race on May 22 that began with 173 runners at the Yellow River Stone Forest park in Jingtai County, which is administered by the city of Baiyin, ended with 152 returning alive, six of whom were rescued by a local shepherd.
On June 25, an official government investigation identified 27 officials as being responsible for the deaths. Five employees of the private company Shengjing Sports Culture Development Co.that had been contracted to organize and run the race for the past four years.
“The emergency plan and safety guarantee measures for the event were not formulated in accordance with the prescribed standards, and the emergency rescue force was seriously underprepared,” the report concluded.
The city of Baiyin, like many formerly prosperous industrial regions, had hoped to use its natural resources to reinvigorate its economy. On top of ultramarathons, the Yellow River Stone Forest park was also home to the national cross-country skiing championship earlier this year. But the report was clear that deaths could have been avoided were it not for the lack of safety measures implemented. The Baiyin municipal government was accused of “hanging its name” on the race banner without being adequately involved in planning and organizing. The report cited “lax industry regulation” and “weak government oversight=”.
That highlights problems in China that go far beyond just sporting events. Lax regulation is a constant problem in a country that combines an intrusive and authoritarian government with a surprising lack of enforcement at the local level and a willingness to cut corners. By far the highest frequency of accidents occurs in the industrial sector. The Tianjin port explosion in 2015 killed 173 people and injured more than 700; more than half of those who died were firefighters. They were called in to deal with a warehouse fire, unaware of the 800 tons of highly inflammable ammonium nitrate that were illegally stored on the premises. Similarly, mining accidents and landslides are notoriously common, including the Shenzhen landslides of 2015 that saw dozens of buildings buried and a slew of prison sentences for criminal negligence.
Most of the time, poor regulation is business as usual. Smaller-scale incidents are rarely reported by the media. When it makes national news, as in Gansu, it has cataclysmic consequences for the officials caught up in the investigation. After the one of those implicated, the Jingtai County party chief, was found dead shortly before the announcement was made—apparently from suicide.
With most of the deaths due to hypothermia, one of the biggest criticisms of the ultramarathon was the failure to mandate proper gear. The standard mandatory clothing list for endurance trail events usually includes waterproof jackets and trousers as a minimum, and often a survival kit along with hats and gloves. Yet waterproofs were merely on the “suggested” list at the Baiyin event. Despite forecasts the night before the race of rain and heavy winds, many runners set off in shorts and vests and little more.
The worst-hit section of the ultramarathon was between the second checkpoint at 24 kilometers into the race and the third checkpoint at 32.5 kilometers, a stretch with no support stations described as “no man’s land”—including a longer than half-mile climb inaccessible to vehicles.
The only way those trapped between the second and third checkpoints could be reached on a rescue mission would be by air or on foot. And as an initial team of 10 rescuers who tried to reach the trail by foot found out, the only access was from the fourth checkpoint and involved a long trek, not to mention needing a local guide.
Without a rescue team familiar with the route on standby, the golden hours of survival were wasted trying to form an adequate plan. According to China News Weekly, organizers tried asking for help from helicopter rescue services but were told all pilots were deployed on missions elsewhere.
Another major oversight was the number of “dead corners” along the route without GPS, internet, or cellular connection. Not only did this mean a struggle for those manning checkpoints to accurately relay the developing situation to those in base camp, but many runners in trouble were also unable to ask for help.
The first distress signal was sent at 12:17 p.m. by someone citing bad weather; soon after, participants began giving up at the second checkpoint due to plummeting temperatures and deteriorating weather.
The worst conditions hit the runners leading at the front, many of whom were already past the second checkpoint by that time. These included China’s top endurance runners such as 31-year-old Liang Jing, who had won the 250-mile Gobi Desert ultramarathon, and the Paralympian Huang Guanjun. Both perished on the course.
Those who made it to the third checkpoint found themselves unable to pick up additional clothing or food supplies, as there was no way of transporting goods up there. While some then decided to give up at the third checkpoint, others continued to their deaths.
Without a coherent chain of command and suspected delays by the organizing company, it took hours for senior officials to learn the scale of the incident. It was only after 5 p.m. that provincial leaders arrived on-site to conduct a mass search and rescue operation that comprised more than 1,000 people, working into the night.
By then, it was much too late for the majority of stranded runners. Hypothermia can develop within 10 minutes and kill within the hour.
But for those familiar with the extreme sports industry, an accident of this scale was a matter of when, not how, driven by the pursuit of profit over safety.
The number of marathons held in China grew from 22 in 2011 to 1,828 eight years later. Trail events in China saw a jump from 16 events in 2013 to 481 in 2019, attributed to middle-class desires to escape the urban jungle and pursue a more active lifestyle. Hiking preceded running as popular outdoor sport, but in more recent years, growing enthusiasm for higher-intensity exercise and more disposable income have driven a surge in gyms and fitness studios. Marathons grew 39 events in 2014 to 1828 in 2019.
Seeing the potential for rapid growth that could generate revenue and build China into a healthy and fit nation, the China Athletic Association (CAA) scrapped the central approval procedure required for holding mass sporting events in 2014, and it handed control to local governments. In 2019, less than a fifth of races had CAA certification.
The number of registered operators of sporting events rose accordingly. In the last five years, more than 57,000 new registrations have made up the majority of the 66,300 currently listed under the category—many of them firms with no experience in handling such events and more than half without administrative licenses. The gold rush mentality has seen many sectors boom and bust, including the dockless short-term bike rental economy that languished as the lack of regulation and oversupply saw cities overwhelmed by broken bicycles and mass “bicycle graveyards.”
For the Baiyin race, the Gansu Shengjing Sports Co. had run the race for the past four years—but had no experience doing so before winning the government contract. Furthermore, public records show that the organization only has one permanent employee—the owner of the company—and the team running the event on the ground may have assembled just one week before the race.
Sporting events feed a long chain of local industries that include entertainment, hospitality, property, and tourism, among others, looking for a share of the pie. As with most business dealings, the successful bid also relies on building special relationships with officials in charge of the tenders. A mix of bribery and fraud leads to rules relaxed and barriers lowered.
The Beijing News reported that over 97 percent of sport event organizers do not have to carry certificates to run such events. Xinhua News quoted an insider as saying that it is common for companies to pay others with the necessary credentials to be listed as a bid partner. Once the contract is secured, all ties are then severed.
For the time being, China announced it would ban all “high-risk” sporting events for the time being, including marathons, ultramarathons, and other extreme sports. The latest disciplinary order is as much an attempt to calm public opinion as to create fundamental changes.
The suspension will likely see tougher rules implemented in future endurance events. On July 5, a press release from 11 government departments that included the General Administration of Sports proposed to “strengthen the safety supervision of sports events.”
But, as with many other disasters, it feels like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Without necessary structural reforms, the systemic corruption will only migrate elsewhere, bringing more disasters with it.
This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.