China’s Deadly Ultramarathon Blamed on Negligence by Organizers


The death toll among participants in the Yellow River Stone Forest Ultramarathon was among the worst in mountain sports—exceeding even devastating climbing accidents including the 1991 Kawagarbo avalanche that killed 17—and shocked the country.

Five people affiliated with the Gansu Jingsheng Sports Co., the race’s operator, have been arrested and will face criminal charges, investigators said at a news conference Friday. Two local officials will face discipline by China’s Communist Party, while more than a dozen more have been sacked or demoted, the investigators said.

The investigators also confirmed the death of  Li Zuobi, party secretary of Jingtai County, which co-hosted the race. Investigators said he shouldered primary responsibility for the tragedy.

Freezing rain and gale-force winds hit a high-altitude ultramarathon event on Saturday in northwest China. After an all-night search and rescue operation, Chinese state media reported that 21 runners out of 172 participants had died. Photo: Stringer/Reuters

The Wall Street Journal on Thursday reported Mr. Li died falling from his high-rise apartment building Wednesday morning after being visited by Communist Party discipline officials earlier that day, according to people familiar with the matter. A state-run magazine, Western China Development, in a social media post Thursday cited local officials in reporting that Mr. Li’s death had been a suicide.

The race was co-hosted by Jingtai County and the city of Baiyin, and operated by Gansu Shengjing Sports. Calls made to those organizations went unanswered.

The provincial government of Gansu carried out the investigation into the management of the race.

The race took runners through a mountainous park in Jingtai to altitudes above 7,300 feet. Racers in shorts were hit by a storm that dropped temperatures well below freezing.

The organizers made fatal mistakes before the race and after the runners urgently sought help, the investigators said, according to People’s Daily and other state media. Runners weren’t required to carry warm clothes even after a gale was forecast, and no medical aid was arranged near the most treacherous part of the route. Rescue efforts were slow and inadequate even after some participants quit the race and called for help, and radio communication was chaotic, the officials said.

At the checkpoint closest to where most of the bodies were ultimately found, the organizers hadn’t installed temporary equipment that would have enabled stable wireless communication, the probe found.

Friday afternoon, the news immediately became one of the most discussed topics on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging service. Families of the deceased runners responded to the investigation report with relief and skepticism.

“It seems to have said everything or nothing,” the daughter of Guizhou runner Lu Zhengyi said on her Weibo account.

“Finally, we’ve got a conclusion that we’ve been waiting for,” said a relative of Duan Jihong, another runner from Yunnan.

Write to Wenxin Fan at Wenxin.Fan@wsj.com

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