Kolkata, India: The deaths of 21 ultramarathon runners in China have brought attention to an industry that is flourishing in China but has been marred by controversies and embarrassments.
The fatalities of the runners competing in a 100-kilometer (60-mile) cross-country mountain competition on Saturday in the northwestern province of Gansu were blamed on hail, freezing rain, and high winds.
Chinese social media exploded with grief and fury as authorities initiated a probe, questioning why the organizers had not been better prepared for the terrible weather.
However, certain ultramarathons, marathons, half-marathons, and other long-distance running events now taking place in China have long been criticized for their poor quality and organization.
Running has exploded in popularity, with primarily middle-class participants using the latest stylish gear and wearable technologies.
Some participants wish to brag about their accomplishments on social media or in job applications to improve their chances of getting hired. Others simply want to stay in shape.
According to media reports from last year, the country staged 40 times more marathons in 2018 than it did in 2014, based on data from the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA).
According to the CAA, China hosted 1,900 “running races” in 2019.
The Shanghai marathon, for example, attracts up to 38,000 participants every year.
The Gansu disaster was “a wake-up call for marathon events that have bloomed almost everywhere in China in recent years” state broadcaster CCTV said in an online commentary on Sunday.
“Route planning, safety guarantees, medical preparations, emergency rescue, food supplies, etc., need to be precise and foolproof,” said CCTV, also warning runners to “respect nature, respect science, cherish life.”
‘Let your hair down’
It’s not the first time that “marathon fever,” as it’s known in Chinese official media, has grabbed headlines for non-sporting reasons.
258 racers were found to have cheated at a half-marathon in Shenzhen, China, in 2018, including several who utilized shortcuts.
They were seen on camera darting through trees to join another stretch of the race.
Then, in 2019, at the Xuzhou International Marathon in eastern China, a woman was videotaped riding a green-colored rented bike. Race organizers instructed her to dismount the bike, which she did, only to mount it again later.
Three Chinese athletes who cheated at the prestigious Boston Marathon in 2019 were given lifelong bans by the CAA in an attempt to clean up the sport.
To meet the tight admission criterion, two of them submitted counterfeit certificates, while the third gave his bib to someone else to race for him.
In China, marathon organizers are now employing facial recognition technology to ensure that runners are appropriately identified.
Some people have been swept up in China’s marathon frenzy, according to state media, and are signing up for races despite being woefully unprepared and with little understanding of what is required.
That does not appear to be the case with those who died in Gansu, allegedly from hypothermia, as elite runners were among the victims.
However, the deaths have prompted new calls for improved regulations and organization.
China’s top sports regulating agency, the General Administration of Sport, has urged event organizers across the country to improve safety.
According to a Beijing News editorial, safety has not kept up with the growing popularity of marathon running, and organizers, including local governments, are sometimes more concerned with luring big numbers of competitors and making money.
“In short, the needs and enthusiasm of popular sports should be met and cared for, but events should not ‘run wild’ at the expense of safety,” it said.
EXTREME WEATHER CONDITIONS KILL 21 IN CHINA, SPARKS OUTRAGE. IMAGE COURTESY OF SA BREAKING NEWS