21 Deaths, and 1 Suicide: The Story of an Ultramarathon Gone Very Wrong

21 runners died in a mountain race in China last month. Who’s to blame?

Jun 18 2021, 1:02pm

Liang Jing supported his family of three by running really, really far.

Before he became an ultramarathoner—a runner who endures distances up to 100 miles—Liang had worked as a delivery worker and a technician at a dairy company. But in 2015, amid a national boom in marathons, the young man found that he could make more money running and quit his job, according to a profile of Liang by Renwu magazine. He was good at it, regularly picking up trophies and prize money in races across China and abroad. Fellow runners called him “Liang the Legend.”

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In September 2020, after he won a 100-kilometer (62 miles) mountain race in northwestern China for the third time in a row, he was greeted by Li Zuobi, the Communist Party chief at Jingtai County, where the race had been held since 2018. The official hung a medal on Liang’s neck and shook his hand in congratulation.

The spotlight was on the champion, but Li also had reason to celebrate. While coastal China, the nation’s manufacturing heartland, had prospered from the country’s explosive growth in trade, his county had been struggling with extreme poverty. The same month, the county declared it had eliminated poverty, defined as making less than $1.7 per day.

Li praised the race for bringing tourists, fame, and money to the county on the southern edge of Gobi Desert. With tourism identified as a new priority for the desert town, Li encouraged the runners to set new records and help boost the county’s profile. In return, Liang gave a plug for the “beautiful sceneries” of the place. “I hope everyone comes to travel here,” he said in an interview.

Liang Jing competes in a race around the Mont-Blanc, crossing France, Italy, and Switzerland in 2019. Photo: JEAN-PIERRE CLATOT/AFP via Getty Images

But one year later, a sport that once gave the men hope for a better future would bring them to their own tragic ends. In May, Liang was among 21 runners in the Jingtai ultramarathon who died after freezing temperatures descended on the mountain trail. Li, on the other hand, jumped to his death as senior officials investigated the human factors that contributed to the deadliest running event in modern history.

The circumstances of the deaths could not be more different. After the disaster, Li was found partly at fault for the inadequate safeguards at the race and poor rescue efforts. But as the authorities rushed to pin the blame on organizers and suspend future races, the disaster also exposed flaws in China’s aggressive, top-down push for economic development, a pursuit that put the 57-year-old bureaucrat and 172 runners in the same treacherous terrain on a fateful day last month.

Running gone awry

A total of 21 runners, or one in eight contestants, died in the May 22 marathon disaster that shocked the running world. A probe by the provincial Gansu government blamed it on the extreme weather and lapses in safety protocols.

At a press briefing last week, officials said the organizers failed to ask contestants to bring warm windproof clothes even after they were warned of strong winds. As a result, athletes in T-shirts and shorts froze to death when the apparent temperature, or what human bodies perceive, plummeted below zero.

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The organizers had also failed to set up enough medical and supply stations along the trail, and to keep communication channels clear for runners to call for help. The rescue work, which lasted some 20 hours, was also poorly organized, according to a People’s Daily report about the briefing. 

Five people at a company that was hired to organize the race were arrested and subjected to criminal investigations. 26 local officials were punished with disciplinary actions, with two of them detained on suspicion of committing work-related crimes, the authorities said.

A 27th official responsible for the accident, county party chief Li Zuobi, died two days before the penalties were made public. He was exempted from the punishment posthumously.

Authorities said Li fell from a high-rise apartment building last Wednesday and suggested it was a suicide by saying that they ruled out homicide. A state-run magazine, Western China Development, reported that Li took his own life, citing local sources close to him.

Official reports about Li’s work suggested he was one of the lower-level cadres tasked with carrying out the political campaigns laid out by the Chinese leadership and meeting Beijing’s ambitious economic targets. 

Marathon politics

A native of Huining county, a poverty-stricken part of the inland province of Gansu, Li started working as a cadre at a township government at the age of 20, and had since governed several different towns in the area, according to a resume posted by state media. 

In 2006, he moved to the Baiyin city government to work in its education and then housing department. In 2015, he was made the Communist Party chief of Jingtai county, which would turn out to be his last job.

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The same year, President Xi Jinping made a bold pledge to end poverty in China in five years. In Jingtai, where some 24 percent of the population were living in poverty by 2013, the campaign had become a focus of Li’s work. 

Under Li’s leadership, the county built solar farms and fishery zones that employed poor residents. More than 3,000 people were made to move from mountainous villages to flat areas so they could work in factories. To attract consumers and investors, it also started to brand itself as an ancient Silk Road town where visitors could sightsee and learn about Communist history.

In 2018, Li traveled to Beijing to promote the newly-launched ultramarathon race at the county’s Yellow River Stone Forest Park. Speaking to state broadcaster CCTV, the official said the contest would become a new growth engine for the tourism industry and help with the fight against poverty. 

Li Zuobi, the Communist Party chief at Jingtai, greets winners at the 2020 race. He is believed to have died by suicide. Photo: Jingtai TV / WeChat

Li was hardly a pioneer in tapping the country’s growing interest in recreational and competitive running. In the past few years, China has experienced a marathon craze that saw the number of races held annually skyrocketing from 134 in 2015 to 1,828 in 2019. Many local governments have tied the races with rural tourism, poverty alleviation, and the “healthy China” policy—all of them initiatives endorsed by China’s president. 

“Marathon races are absolutely politically correct,” Ning Leng, an expert on Chinese governance with Georgetown University, told VICE World News. Leng said the events fit into Xi’s push to make China a sports power. “First, it’s highly visible, so it has reputational gains. Second, it does involve economic benefits. It’s actually also very good at promoting tourism.”

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Leng said besides hitting hard economic targets, local officials in China often launch side projects, such as infrastructure building, trade fairs and sports events, to attract the upper leadership’s attention and increase their chances of getting promoted. 

In her upcoming book on public services in China, Leng argued that the problem of such “visibility projects” is the programs designated to appease leaders might not suit the local situation.

“You will have inefficient projects,” she said in an interview. “You will have local governments inexperienced in launching certain types of projects that nonetheless launched them without careful preparation and planning.” 

Following the recent marathon tragedy, China’s sports watchdog ordered all ultramarathon and off-road races to be suspended, as authorities work on enforcing safety protocols. 

The runners

The running community is in mourning. Some athletes have called for more regulatory oversight of the industry that had seen races being held frantically at the expense of runners’ health and safety. 

Wei Jing, a former marathon runner who personally knew many of the athletes who died in Gansu, told VICE World News last month that problems such as doping and overtraining are prevalent in China’s “chaotic” running industry. 

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Many professional athletes would go from race to race in order to win more award money, without taking enough rest in between, she said. 

“I was shocked that so many people died this time. I couldn’t eat and sleep well since it happened,” the 51-year-old in Sichuan province told VICE World News. “It is time for the industry to cool down.”

The government has not published the names of the 21 people who died in the race in Gansu. According to a widely-shared list compiled by news outlet GQ China, the deceased included a 25-year-old newly-wed accountant, a 34-year-old hearing-impaired running champion, a 25-year-old ethnic Kirghiz firefighter, a 50-year-old vegetable vendor, and 31-year-old champion Liang, whose daughter will turn two in July. 

Chinese media reported last month that the local government offered each victim’s family $150,000 in compensation, but some refused to accept the deal. 

Several family members and survivors in the race declined speaking to VICE World News, saying they “cannot” talk to foreign media.

“Pengfei has left,” a relative of Cao Pengfei, a 35-year-old athlete from the eastern province of Anhui, said in an online message to VICE World News last week. “No matter how it is handled, Pengfei could not be brought back. We really don’t want to talk about this anymore.” 

Follow Viola Zhou on Twitter.

Tagged:

Sports, marathon, world politics, worldnews

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