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    After Ultramarathon Deaths, China Wonders: What Went Wrong?

    Many see the tragedy of 21 deaths to exposure and hypothermia as a combination of natural disaster and human error.
    May 24, 2021#sports#disasters

    After a sudden bout of inclement weather killed 21 participants during an ultramarathon race in the northwestern Gansu province over the weekend, China’s top sports authority convened an emergency meeting Sunday to urge officials at all levels of government to make safety a higher priority at major sporting events.

    Around 1 p.m. Saturday, a sudden change in the weather around the city of Baiyin caused some of the 172 participants in the Yellow River Shilin 100km Cross-Country Race to turn back and retire early.

    Others were less fortunate. Blindsided by hail, freezing rain, and strong winds, 21 runners — many of them wearing shorts, tank tops, and other warm-weather race gear — succumbed to hypothermia and died.

    Last weekend marked the first case of extreme weather in the event’s four-year history. One participant, Gao Shuang, said the forecast the day before the race hadn’t mentioned possible bad weather.

    “By the end of May, Baiyin has entered summertime,” Gao wrote in a post Sunday on social app WeChat that has been viewed over 100,000 times, the maximum number the platform displays. “Based on experience from previous races, raincoats were not listed as compulsory equipment.”

    Zhang Xiaotao, one of the top-tier runners competing in the event, was among the survivors. In an interview with domestic media, he recalled that before the race, he had been more concerned with protecting himself from the heat. “What happened was just the opposite,” he said.

    But the freak weather shouldn’t have been a complete surprise.

    On Friday afternoon, Gansu’s meteorological bureau had forecast hail, rainfall, strong wind, dust storms, thunder and lightning, and a drop in temperature across the province on Friday and Saturday, warning that special measures should be taken to protect against the elements.

    In the aftermath of the tragedy, China’s state news agency raised four questions that must be urgently answered: Why wasn’t the weather forecast heeded as a warning? Was the course adequately staffed and equipped? Did the organizers have time to stop the race? Was there an emergency response plan?

    For now, the case is still being investigated. The mayor of Baiyin, Zhang Xuchen, who fired the starting pistol to kick off the race, said that he and his office, as the event’s organizers, felt “deeply guilty” about the tragedy that unfolded.

    Zhang Mo, a Shanghai-based marathon runner, said that although he has limited experience running in the mountains, he can’t understand why the organizers didn’t require participants to at least bring raincoats.

    “It’s common sense that weather can change drastically in the mountains,” Zhang told Sixth Tone, stressing the importance of raincoats and GPS trackers, which could have aided rescue efforts. “Such ultramarathons in the mountains demand more from runners. They need to be much more experienced than those like me who mostly run in cities. But perhaps it was because they were so experienced, and not used to rain in this area, that they underestimated the risk.”

    After the deaths were reported in Gansu, a women’s 10-kilometer trail race on Moganshan, a mountain in the eastern Zhejiang province that’s also a popular tourist destination, was canceled on Sunday. Some runners who participated in other races that day — of various lengths, up to 100 kilometers — ended up dropping out after torrential rain caused the trails to become muddy. No casualties were reported.

    The deaths of the 21 athletes in Gansu have shocked the country, with many on social media calling the tragedy a combination of natural and man-made.

    “The organizers should have established pre-race warnings and an emergency response plan,” one user commented on microblogging platform Weibo under a related media post. “They have an obligation to ensure the safety of each and every life.”

    Casualties at long-distance races aren’t uncommon in China. Earlier this month, two runners were reported to have died during separate ultramarathon races in Gansu and the southwestern Yunnan province. And in 2017, the wife of a man who collapsed after crossing the finish line at the Xiamen International Half-Marathon in the eastern Fujian province sued the event’s organizers for wrongful death.

    With China’s rapid development, many people living in cities now have the time and disposable income to focus on their health, a trend that has ushered in a marathon boom. According to data from the Chinese Athletics Association, the country’s governing body for athletics, some 1,828 marathon events were held on the Chinese mainland in 2019, or 247 more than the year prior. Total participants, meanwhile, increased by 22% to 7.12 million.

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: Participants compete in the Yellow River Shilin 100km Cross-Country Race in Baiyin, Gansu province, May 20, 2018. IC)