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Xinhua Insight: China's marathon organizers, runners under scrutiny following deaths

Updated: 12 19 , 2016 14:21
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FUZHOU, Dec. 18 -- Running has surged in popularity across China, bringing both health benefits and bragging rights. Marathoners race to post photos from the finish line on Chinese social media and fly across the country to compete.

However, the sudden death of two runners has led critics to ask whether race organizers and participants are taking too many shortcuts when it comes to safety.


About 4.5 kilometers from the finish line, a runner suffered sudden cardiac and respiratory arrest and fell to the ground in a race on Dec. 10. Another runner collapsed, breathless and with dilated pupils, as soon as he finished.

The two runners died during the 2016 Xiamen (Haicang) International Half Marathon in eastern China's Fujian Province.

The organizers said the event was fully equipped with medical stations and staff so that all runners could be reached within two minutes. The runner who reached the finish line received emergency aid and treatment immediately. The other was treated by a doctor who arrived on bicycle in two minutes and performed CPR and defibrillation.

Both runners were sent to a nearby hospital for further treatment, but to no avail.

The investigation that followed found that one of the deceased was a "substitute" who wore someone else's number bib in order to qualify for the race.

The organizing committee explained that non-runners were allowed to collect registration packets and number bibs, provided they had proper documentation, for the convenience of registered runners who are not locals. "Trading of number bibs is banned, but it is also hard to detect," a committee member said.

The registrant has been banned permanently from the race, the organizing committee said in a statement this week.


The seemingly avoidable deaths were not isolated incidents in China, which is catching up to other countries in the number of marathons it hosts.

Based on reports from recent years, at least 14 runners died during races in the past three years: five cases in 2014, another five in 2015, and four, including the two in Xiamen, in 2016 so far. Most of the deceased were under 35 years old.

According to the official website of the Chinese Athletics Association, as of December 8, a total of 328 marathons had been registered or held in 2016. Last year, the association registered 134 marathons, still 83 more than the previous year.

Almost all of the country's provincial-level regions have hosted marathons this year, according to the website's event list. Millions of runners from nearly 100 countries competed in the events.

"China began hosting marathons with the 1981 Beijing Marathon, and their number has surged ever since, especially in recent years," said Tao Shaoming, former coach of the national women's marathon team, in an earlier interview.

A healthy lifestyle has become a common aspiration among Chinese people. Sports equipment sales are rising, and far more people register for the country's popular marathons than can compete.

However, some suspect the surging popularity of marathons is driven by a desire to score social media points rather than love of the sport.

"Without any systematic training or willpower, what they want is to take photos and tell the world on social media that they are leading a fashionably 'healthy' life," said a Weibo microblogger using the name Chiphell.

An enthusiastic marathoner surnamed Liu said he had witnessed all kinds of absurd cheating at races. Those who failed to get a number in the lottery could buy one from lucky registrants or simply took their chances by mixing into the crowd on the race track, he said, and those who wanted a certificate but didn't want to endure the run might have someone else run for them or take shortcuts on the course.

"The organizers should first be blamed for the chaos," said a marathoner surnamed Gao. "Once I saw a man running with a woman's number bib. The bib colors for male and female runners are different. Anyone who was not color blind could easily spot it, but all the referees along the route just turned a blind eye."


"We call on all runners to bear the spirit of sportsmanship and run by the rules. Anyone who breaches the rules will face severe punishment," said the organizers of the Xiamen marathon in a statement about the recent deaths.

Following the tragic incidents, the committee has considered stricter procedures for future races, including warning runners about misconduct and using technology to enforce the rules.

Gao said the participants should also be blamed.

"If you really love running, you should respect the rules, instead of ignoring them," he said.

Marathons are, after all, commercial activities that generate profit, meaning organizers must take responsibility if anything goes wrong, said Shen Junru, a law professor at east China's Hangzhou Normal University.

"Individuals who do not play by the rules should also be held accountable, for example, by having their misdeeds added to their personal honesty records in addition to fines and permanent bans," he added.

by Xinhua writers Cao Bin, Liu Juan and Yan Zhihong

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