After Ultramarathon Deaths, Insiders Suggest Tragedy Was Inevitable

Last weekend, tragedy struck China’s sports community after 21 runners were killed following a freak change of weather during an ultra-marathon event in Gansu. Among the dead was Liang Jing, 31, a champion athlete who had won several ultra-marathons in the past. The popularity of long distance running has exploded in China in recent years. Following the tragedy, authorities and the public were questioned about the preparedness of organizers of long distance, highly strenuous events, and whether adequate safety measures were being implemented. The New York Times’ Alexandra Stevenson and Cao Li reported on the disaster earlier this week:

The deaths prompted outrage in China, with online commentators questioning the preparedness of the local government that organized the race, held at Yellow River Stone Forest Park in Gansu Province.

Hours into the event on Saturday, the weather suddenly deteriorated as the runners were climbing 6,500 feet above sea level to the 12-mile mark, according to Zhang Xuchen, the mayor of the nearby city of Baiyin, who fired the starting pistol. Runners dressed in shorts and T-shirts were suddenly facing freezing conditions, and rain turned to hail. Some passed out from the cold.

[…] By Sunday, discussion online in China focused on the apparent failure to prepare for the possibility of extreme weather. Some questioned whether organizers had paid enough attention to the weather forecast.

The news that two elite runners were among the dead amplified the public anger. The state-owned Beijing News reported the death of Mr. Liang, who had won several ultramarathons in China in recent years. Two runners who helped with the rescue effort confirmed the death of Mr. Huang, according to the state-owned Red Star News. [Source]

Out of the tragedy in Gansu also came a remarkable story of heroism, after it emerged that a local shepherd managed to save the lives of six runners by escorting them to shelter inside a cave. AFP reported on that story:

Zhu was grazing his sheep on Saturday around lunchtime when the wind picked up, the rain came down and temperatures plunged, he told state media.

He sought refuge in a cave where he had stored clothes and food for emergencies but while inside spotted one of the race’s 172 competitors and checked to see what was wrong because he was standing still, apparently suffering cramps.

Zhu escorted the man back to the cave, massaged his freezing hands and feet, lit a fire and dried his clothes.

Four more distressed runners made it into the cave and told the shepherd others were marooned outside, some unconscious.

Zhu headed outside once more and, braving hail and freezing temperatures, reached a runner lying on the ground. He carried him towards the shelter and wrapped him in blankets, almost certainly saving his life. [Source]

Even as the shepherd was hailed as a hero on Chinese social media, some commentators sharply criticized the ill-preparedness of the organizers and the inadequate safety measures in place that left people reliant on the magnanimity of strangers. Author and commentator Mr. Shen Maohua (who goes by the pen name Wei Zhou), reflected on the significance of this tragedy and what it meant for the vulnerability of Chinese people in general. CDT translated an excerpt:

[…] To be fair, it’s inevitable that there would be some confusion in the response to such a sudden accident. Anyone who has participated even a little in organizational work knows that it’s almost impossible to anticipate and control all possible accidents. The problem, however, is that in the Baiyin tragedy, it wasn’t that the plans were inadequate, it’s that there was no plan at all.

After the tragedy, the first focus of public ire was, of course, the weather forecasters. But Kang Yongxue, the director of the Jingtai County Meteorological Bureau, said that they had previously provided a report for the event and issued a “heavy wind code blue warning,” and had notified the organizers by text message. Obviously, the organizers didn’t take it seriously, and even when runners noticed the gloomy weather the day before and inquired about it, the answer they received was: “it’ll be sunny once the wind passes.”

More truths are gradually emerging: Gansu Shengjing Sports Culture Development Co. Ltd., the operator of the event, was registered in September 2016. The number of insured persons was 0, total employees was 22. But according to Chinese organizational standards for similar events, every runner should be accompanied by 3-5 people for protection, which is to say, the operator had insufficient manpower to protect 172 people in ultramarathon competitions. During the most difficult stage in the whole race, between the second checkpoint (Cp2) and the third checkpoint (Cp2), there was not a single refreshment station. After encountering extreme weather, some runners called for rescue and for the race to be suspended, but received no response. Later, the first batch of rescue teams conducted search and rescue from the assembly point at Cp4 to Cp3, taking three and a half hours, while the window for maintaining a safe body temperature is only 1-2 hours.

In the end, a 49-year-old shepherd named Zhu Keming, who just happened to be sheltering from the rain in a cave, was the only one who could rescue the runners in time. He had released his sheep that morning, and based on his experience avoiding extreme weather, he left clothes, bedding, and dry food in the cave. When he saw the runners freezing one by one, he brought six into the cave. Afterwards, the six rescued people tried to thank him. In the classic kind-heartedness of Chinese common folk, he said what he had done wasn’t all that much, that “anyone in that situation would’ve done the same.”

As a result, some people on Weibo ridiculed: “If the organizer was more down to earth and hadn’t used the race as a profit-making venture, it could’ve spent 3000 yuan to hire 10 shepherds, and then not one runner would’ve frozen to death.” These words are harsh and rather disrespectful towards the shepherds, but it reveals the underlying fact when Chinese society encounters emergencies: due to the lack of safety measures, each of us is as vulnerable as those runners. Now, we can only rely on the most basic relief, which often relies on the kindness of ordinary people. This only highlights the extent to which formal response mechanisms have been lacking. [Chinese]

Following the public outcry, the central government announced on Monday that it had ordered provincial authorities to carry out a detailed investigation of the disaster. In a sign of the seriousness of the investigation, the announcement was made by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the body charged with investigating corruption up to the highest level. South China Morning Post reported that the central government and state media had criticized “certain” officials for putting “profit above safety.”

But as Will Ford reported for Outside Magazine, part of the blame for the lackluster safety precautions at Sunday’s race could, in fact, be pinned on politics—specifically, on competition among Party cadres scrambling to introduce ultra-marathon events amid their boom in popularity in China:

One reason why races outpace resources in China is politics. Party officials, who are often called cadres in China, are promoted based on economic development in their region, and large cultural projects—including recreational events—earn them bonus points from higher-ups. As a result, marathons and ultra races have become a favorite pursuit for many officials. (At the Gansu race, the mayor of the city hosting the event shot off the starting pistol.) They bring tourism and media coverage, and cadres can highlight them on their résumés. Politicians see other countries hosting competitions and, not to be outdone, organize their own, sometimes one-upping each other by increasing race distances and elevation gains. Every county in China now seems to host a race, and organizers from the country’s entrepreneurial class have risen quickly to chase after government and sponsor contracts.

[…] When I asked organizers about the potential for something like this to occur, they frequently told me the question was when, not if, a tragedy would happen. Getting lost isn’t uncommon in ultras around the world, nor is bad weather, and the tragedy in China has caused some to question whether ultra running has grown too extreme in general. But races in China often lack basic preparation.

[…] Such inconsistency in quality and planning is typical for developing countries that are growing adventure sports to appeal to a growing middle class, but China’s progress has been especially uneven. Wei Jun, a former sports bureaucrat who now organizes private races, told me a few years ago that only about 10 percent of organizers survive the business, and that new ones—many with no experience—replace them immediately. “So you have races that are run very well. Others are disastrous,” he said. [Source]


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