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As distance-racing becomes popular with the middle class, the sport has seen increased scandals

March 24’s Xuzhou Marathon ran into infamy 27 kilometers before the finish line. First, a runner surnamed Meng was caught using a shared bike, refusing referees’ warnings to dismount. Then it was revealed that onlookers had looted the supply tent, making off with cases of bananas and water meant for the athletes, and arguing that “everyone else [was] doing it.”

Together, the incidents attracted more interest than the actual winners, tarring a sport that seems to grow more popular—and scandal-ridden—by the year.

According to an annual Chinese Athletics Association report, 1,581 marathons, involving 5.83 million participants, were held in China over 2018—an average of 4.3 per day. As an increasingly health-conscious middle class searches for low-cost forms of fitness, reports of injuries, along with under-prepared runners and inept organizers, continue to overtake marathon coverage.

Patriotic putz

At November’s Taihu Marathon in Suzhou, Jiangsu, two volunteers tried to press a Chinese flag into front runner He Yinli’s hands, causing her to lose her lead in the crucial final stretch. The organizer, Wisdom Sports Group, responded that national flags are routinely distributed to the top three Chinese runners.

A month later at another Wisdom Sports Group event, Guangxi’s Nanning Marathon, an employee grabbed Ethiopian winner Outoya Gelgelo Tona as he crossed the finish line. Following initial claims that the steward was stopping Outoya for a photo op,  China Youth Daily reported that he was, in fact, trying to do the opposite—by preventing the “confused” athlete from running into a crowded photography area. The public remained unconvinced, and experts pointed out the sudden stop could have caused dizziness, shock, or even death to the runner.

For these two blunders, the Chinese Athletics Association withdrew Wisdom’s accreditation to organize and judge marathons for the next year.

Medal muddle

Wisdom Sports has a track record of scandals: In 2015, its Hangzhou Marathon distributed participation medals before the event, supposedly to prevent participants from “fighting” over medals as they had the previous year. The Guiyang Marathon’s 2016 medals came with a spelling mistake (“Finsher”), while certificates given to Nanchang Marathon finishers misprinted mayor Guo An’s name as Zhang Huanqiu, mayor of Jilin.

Organizers at 2017’s Changchun Marathon failed to fire the 8 a.m. starting pistol, causing runners to “false start.” More drama ensued when two lead runners were blamed for the resulting chaos, and given a lifetime racing ban. The same year, the Jilin Marathon was accused of withholding winners’ prize money four months after the race.

Administrative hurdles

Keen to avoid an apology, those in charge typically offer a convoluted excuse for their mistakes. After runners in 2018’s Zhoukou Marathon in Henan were given expired peanuts from 2001, organizers claimed that local producers had printed the wrong date on a fresh batch.

But there was no easy out for the Sundown Marathon Qingdao, which was dubbed the “worst marathon ever” in 2018 after a string of snafus, including shuttle buses for finishers that refused to leave without at least 50 onboard, meaning some had to stand on the overcrowded bus for a 40-minute journey.

Meanwhile, a surge in registration over the last few years has led to lotteries to participate, as well as ultra-competitive and utterly unscrupulous entrants. Cyclists were also spotted at the 2017 Shanghai International Half Marathon and 2018 Shenzhen Nanshan Half-Marathon. The latter recorded 258 further infractions, including 18 unregistered runners with forged racing numbers, three runners running on behalf of others, and 46 taking a shortcut across a greenbelt.

Running out

Injuries and deaths are also common. Fourteen marathon-related fatalities were reported between 2015 to 2017, while 12,208 out of 20,000 Qingyuan Marathon entrants ran into trouble, with 9,838 suffering cramps, 1,743 a sprain, 17 hospitalized, and 306 fainting. Others will stop at nothing to win, such as the runner in last November’s Shaoxing Marathon in Zhejiang who had to be physically restrained by medical volunteers after fainting twice.

Not all staff are so reliable. In January, a Xiamen Marathon referee was accused of misappropriating supplies, including bananas, paper cups, and bread; incidents similar to the Xuzhou supply-grab occurred at races in Nanjing, Guiyang, and Huai’an last year.

In another Shanghai marathon in 2015, though, the only complaint was from a resident angry that a closed-off road made him late meeting his wife, putting him “in danger.” Given all the vainglories of racing, this down-to-earth bystander emerges as perhaps the most sympathetic character.

Cover image from Pexels


author Tan Yunfei (谭云飞)

Tan Yunfei is the editorial director of The World of Chinese. She reports on Chinese language, food, traditions, and society. Having grown up in a rural community and mainly lived in the cities since college, she tries to explore and better understand China's evolving rural and urban life with all readers.

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