Chinese authorities have launched an investigation into the death of 21 people in an ultramarathon over the weekend, as family and friends of the competitors who died in the freezing weather questioned how it was allowed to happen.
A further eight runners were injured when extreme weather hit the 100km (62 miles) high-altitude race in Yellow River Stone Forest near Baiyin in north-western Gansu province. More than 700 rescuers were sent in with thermal imaging drones and radar detectors to find the 172 competitors who were running with little protective clothing other than emergency foil blankets, some of which were reportedly shredded by high winds.
Local authorities have launched an investigation, while observers blamed race organisers, accusing them of not heeding weather forecasts for the province, which is often hit by extreme weather conditions.
In a report on Friday, the provincial meteorological bureau had issued warnings for “sudden heavy showers, hail, lightning, [and] sudden gale-force winds” across Gansu. State media reported temperatures plunging far below zero, pelting runners with rain, hail and sleet.
In response to the tragedy, China’s sports governing body ordered improvements in safety managements in national sport events, including detailed contingency plans for incidents and measures for emergency cancellations, saying there were “problems and deficiencies” in the management model for races.
Among the dead were elite runners, including the 31-year-old record-holder Liang Jing, who leaves behind a two-year-old daughter, and the Paralympian Huang Ganjun.
Liang had won a number of Chinese ultramarathons in recent years while Huang won the men’s hearing-impaired marathon at the 2019 National Paralympic Games.
“I’m still stunned by the news. How could this happen? I can not believe it,” Liang’s father told media.
Of the lead six competitors, only one – Zhang Xiaotao – reportedly survived. In a post on Weibo, Zhang described overtaking Huang, who was both speech and hearing impaired, on the mountain as the weather began to turn. He also described running with Wu Pan-rong who was in fifth place, for a time, supporting each other before they were separated. Wu is also reported to be among the dead.
Zhang said he fell several times, and at one point “could not get up”. He said he covered himself with the emergency blanket and set off his GPS locator before passing out.
He said he was rescued by a shepherd who had wrapped him in a blanket and carried him to a nearby cave, where several other runners were sheltering. After he regained consciousness, they descended the mountain together.
“As a participant, I would like to pay my deepest condolence to my fellow runners who have passed away. May they rest in peace. My utmost appreciation to the shepherd. I would have died if he has not saved me. What he has done will never be forgotten.”
The incident has prompted outrage on social media. Related Weibo hashtags and message threads have been viewed more than 120m times, with some calling it a “man-made disaster”.
“It is suffocating to know that this could had been avoided. It is purely a man-made tragedy,” said a story reporting Huang’s death.
At a news briefing on Sunday, Baiyin officials bowed and apologised, saying they were saddened by the tragic deaths of the runners and that they were to be blamed.