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China's ultramarathon tragedy was a fad

Over a month after the trail ultramarathon in Baiyin, a city in China's Gansu Province that killed 21 runners in extreme weather, the Chinese internet is still full of anger and questions.

"Can 'rare extreme weather" really be responsible for a 12 percent death rate in a sporting event? "Asked China News Weekly in a feature on the front page. One user wrote on Weibo: “21 elite athletes lost their lives on a well-known racetrack, such an accident, the athlete's fault is almost indisputable. … Many others on the Internet have the same suspicions. "

The 100-kilometer race on May 22, which began with 173 runners in Yellow River Stone Forest Park in Jingtai County, administered by Baiyin City, ended with 152 returning alive, six of whom were from. A local shepherd was saved.

On June 25, an official government investigation identified 27 officials responsible for the deaths. Five employees from the private company Shengjing Sports Culture Development Co., which has been responsible for organizing and running the race for the past four years.

"The emergency plan and the safety guarantee measures for the event were not formulated according to the prescribed standards and the rescue workers were very inadequately prepared," the report concluded.

The city of Baiyin, like many formerly prosperous industrial regions, had hoped to be able to use its natural resources to revitalize its economy. In addition to ultramarathons, the Yellow River Stone Forest Park also hosted the national cross-country skiing championships earlier this year. However, the report made it clear that deaths could have been avoided if safety measures had not been taken. The Baiyin city government was accused of having "their name" hung on the racing banner without being properly involved in the planning and organization. The report cited "lax industry regulation" and "weak government oversight =".

This highlights problems in China that go far beyond sporting events. Lax regulation is an ongoing problem in a country that combines intrusive and authoritarian government with a surprising lack of local enforcement and willingness to compromise. By far the highest frequency of accidents occurs in industry. 173 people were killed and more than 700 injured in the explosion at Tianjin Port in 2015; More than half of the dead were firefighters. They were called to a campfire without knowing that 800 tons of highly flammable ammonium nitrate were illegally stored on the premises. Similarly, mining accidents and landslides are notoriously common, including the 2015 Shenzhen landslide that buried dozens of buildings and recorded a number of prison sentences for criminal negligence.

Most of the time, bad regulation continues as usual. Minor incidents are rarely reported in the media. When it does national news, as it did in Gansu, it has disastrous consequences for the officials involved in the investigation. After one of those involved, the party leader of Jingtai County, was found dead shortly before the announcement – apparently by suicide.

With most deaths from hypothermia, one of the biggest criticisms of the ultramarathon has been its failure to mandate proper equipment. The standard mandatory clothing list for endurance trail events usually includes at least waterproof jackets and pants, and often a survival kit along with hats and gloves. But at the Baiyin event, waterproof fabrics were only on the "suggestion list". Despite the predictions the night before the race with rain and high winds, many runners set out in shorts and vests and little more.

The hardest hit section of the ultramarathon was between the second checkpoint at 15 miles after the race and the third checkpoint at 20 miles, a stretch with no support stations known as "no man's land" – including an inaccessible climb of more than a half Mile to vehicles.

The only way to reach those trapped between the second and third checkpoints on a rescue mission would be by air or on foot. And as a first team of 10 rescuers trying to reach the trail on foot found out, the only access was from the fourth checkpoint and required a long hike, not to mention the need for a local guide.

Without a rescue team familiar with the route on standby, the golden hours of survival were wasted in devising an adequate plan. According to China News Weekly, organizers tried to seek help from helicopter rescue services, but were told that all pilots were deployed on missions elsewhere.

Another important oversight was the number of “dead corners” along the route without GPS, internet or cellular connection. Not only did this mean a struggle for the checkpoints to accurately convey the developing situation to those at base camp, but many runners in trouble were unable to seek help.

The first distress signal was sent at 12:17 p.m. from someone quoting bad weather; Soon after, participants gave up at the second checkpoint due to falling temperatures and deteriorating weather conditions.

The worst conditions hit the front runners, many of whom had already passed the second checkpoint by this point. These included China's top endurance runners like 31-year-old Liang Jing, who won the 250-mile ultra marathon in the Gobi Desert, and Paralympian Huang Guanjun. Both perished on the course.

Those who made it to the third checkpoint could not bring any extra clothes or groceries as there was no way to transport goods there. While some decided to give up at the third checkpoint, others went 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 extent of the incident. It was only after 5pm. that provincial leaders were on hand to conduct a mass search and rescue operation that included more than 1,000 people and worked late into the night.

For most of the stranded runners, it was way too late by then. Hypothermia can develop in 10 minutes and kill within an hour.

But for those familiar with the extreme sports industry, an accident of this magnitude was a matter of when, not how, driven by the pursuit of profit over safety.

The number of marathons held in China rose from 22 in 2011 to 1,828 eight years later. Trail events in China rose from 16 events in 2013 to 481 in 2019, driven by the desire of the middle class to escape the urban jungle and pursue a more active lifestyle. Hiking preceded running as a popular outdoor sport, but in recent years the growing craze for more intense exercise and more disposable income has led to an increase in gyms and gyms. Marathons grew 39 events in 2014 to 1,828 in 2019.

Given the potential for rapid growth that could generate revenue and make China a healthy and fit nation, the China Athletic Association (CAA) abolished the centralized licensing process required for hosting major sporting events in 2014 and took control surrendered to local governments. In 2019, fewer than a fifth of the races had CAA certification.

The number of registered organizers of sporting events increased accordingly. In the last five years, more than 57,000 new registrations made up the majority of the 66,300 currently listed in this category – many of them companies with no experience in handling such events and more than half without administrative licenses. The gold rush mentality has boomed and failed many sectors, including the dockless short-term bike rental economy that languished as lack of regulation and oversupply led cities to be overwhelmed by broken bikes and mass “bike graveyards”.

In the Baiyin race, Gansu Shengjing Sports Co. had run the race for the past four years, but had no experience with it before winning the government contract. Additionally, public records show that the organization has only one permanent employee – the owner of the company – and the team running the event on site may only be there a week before the race.

Sporting events feed a long chain of local industries that include entertainment, hospitality, real estate, and tourism, among others, looking for a share of the cake. As with most business relationships, a successful application is based on building special relationships with the officials responsible for the advertisements. A mixture of bribery and fraud results in the loosening of rules and the lowering of barriers.

Beijing News reported that over 97 percent of sports event organizers are not required to carry certificates to host such events. Xinhua News quoted an insider as saying it was common for companies to pay others with credentials to be listed as bidders. Once the contract is secured, all ties are then severed.

China initially announced that it would ban all "high-risk" sporting events for the time being, including marathons, ultramarathons and other extreme sports. The recent disciplinary order is both an attempt to calm public opinion and to bring about fundamental change.

The suspension will likely have stricter rules in place at future long-distance events. On July 5, a press release from eleven government departments, including the General Administration of Sports, proposed "strengthening safety oversight at sporting events."

But as with many other disasters, it feels like closing the stable gate after the horse has jumped through. Without the necessary structural reforms, systemic corruption will only move elsewhere and bring more disasters with it.

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