Probe ultramarathon tragedy, but don’t stop the race

The tragedy in Baiyin, Gansu province, that left 21 of the country's top runners dead after they were caught in a hailstorm, freezing rain and high winds during a 100-kilometer cross-country mountain race on Saturday has sparked a heated debate online.

Some people have criticized the organizers, saying ultramarathons should be banned in China, with some even blaming the runners for risking their lives to participate in the competition. The tragedy demands a thorough investigation. And organizers should draw lessons from it, and take measures to prevent similar incidents.

The problems exposed by the tragedy, such as local authorities' poor capability of handling emergencies, show how important strict standards and quality sports services are to ensure the safety of those participating in extreme sports.

The tragedy has sent alarm bells ringing. It’s high time the authorities tightened regulations on extreme sports

Although the tragedy can attributed to extreme weather, the local organizers should be held responsible for the lack of preparations to handle such emergencies. There were vast stretches of sparsely populated areas the runners had to cover during the cross-country mountain race, and fluid and medical stations were too few to meet the needs of the runners or deal with any emergency.

Besides, the organizers did not require the runners to carry warm clothes despite the race extending to high altitudes where the weather is generally cold. So when the runners were caught in a hailstorm, freezing rain and gale-force winds, they had no protection. And the sudden and drastic drop in temperature caught them off guard, and according to preliminary findings, they all died of hypothermia.

The tragedy has sent alarm bells ringing. It's high time the authorities tightened regulations on extreme sports. In this regard, the decision taken in a meeting of the General Administration of Sport of China on Sunday night that sports events should put people's lives first a timely reminder to organizers that they should take all necessary measures to ensure the safety of athletes.

Yet the Baiyin tragedy is no reason to halt marathons or ultramarathons in China, because professionals and amateurs both have the right to follow the Olympic motto of faster, higher and stronger by taking part in competitions.

Athletes are guided by the spirit of forging ahead. So it is wrong to blame the people for taking part in competitive sports for any accident. All sports carry risks, and we should not throw away the "apple because of the core".

Moreover, although ultramarathons are less popular in China than marathons, which are generally held in cities, they have two big advantages. First, ultramarathons help the runners get a taste of the cultures and customs of different regions. Normally, the runners need to arrive at the site one day before the race, so they get some time to know the local society.

Second, unlike a marathon that requires some roads in a city to be closed to vehicles, an ultramarathon does not disturb residents' normal lives, and instead can be part of a region's image-promoting campaign leading to socioeconomic development. The most important thing is that the local authorities and sports organizations should have the capability and expertise to hold such races. Which means those areas that lack enough funds or expertise should not organize such races.

The Gansu tragedy has dealt a serious blow to the emerging sports in China. But it shouldn't put a full stop on ultramarathons. Instead, from now on, the authorities should more strictly supervise sports events and organizers must draw a lesson from it to make all necessary arrangements to deal with any emergencies.

Yi Jiandong is a sports expert and professor at Wenzhou University. This is an excerpt from his interview with China Daily's Zhang Xi.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.