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Local officials said on Sunday that 21 people, including two of the best marathon players in China, have died after freezing rain and strong winds hit a 62-mile mountain race in northwest China.
State media reported that Liang Jing, 31, ultramarathon champion, and Huang Gwangjun, winner of the men’s marathon for hard of hearing runners at the 2019 Chinese National Paralympic Games, were among the dead.
The deaths sparked outrage in China, as online commentators questioned the readiness of the local government that organized the race, which was held at Yellow River Stone Forest Park in Gansu Province.
Hours after the event began on Saturday, the weather suddenly deteriorated as the contestants rose 6,500 feet above sea level to the 12-mile mark, according to Zhang Shuxin, mayor of nearby Baiyin City, who fired the starting pistol. The contestants, wearing shorts and T-shirts, suddenly encountered freezing weather, and the rain turned to hail. Some passed out from the cold.
“In a short period of time, hail and freezing rain fell in the area, and there were strong winds,” said Mr. Zhang. “The temperature has dropped sharply.”
Mr. Zhang said that some participants sent a video message asking for help, and the authorities sent a rescue team that helped 18 athletes. The race was canceled by 2 pm on Saturday.
By evening, officials had begun a massive rescue effort involving 1,200 people in search and rescue teams, along with thermal imaging drones and other equipment, state media reported. In a video clip taken by the Chinese State Broadcasting Corporation, rescuers were seen wandering around in the dark carrying electric lights, some in combat uniforms, and others in blue or orange suits and a helmet.
The race, which began on a tourist site near the Yellow River and followed a path through canyons with massive stone stalagmites, has been organized by the local government for the past four years. It was seen as a way to promote tourism in the region, which is located in one of the poorest provinces of China.
This year, 172 people have participated in the 62-mile race, while hundreds of others have been registered to run in shorter events. Officials said 151 participants in the race had been confirmed safe, and that the last missing runner was found dead on Sunday morning. Eight people are treated in the hospital.
Mr. Zhang said the rescue efforts had been complicated by the landslide after the rains. The area is prone to mudslides and floods.
By Sunday, online discussions in China focused on the apparent failure to prepare for the prospect of severe weather. Some questioned whether the organizers paid enough attention to the weather forecast.
Reports of elite runners among the dead increased public anger. The state-owned Beijing News reported the death of Mr. Liang, who has won several ultramarathons in China in recent years. Two contestants who assisted in the rescue efforts have confirmed Mr. Huang’s death, according to the state-owned Red Star News.
Steve Bramar, director of race for the Hong Kong 100 Ultramarathon, said Sunday that Mr. Liang was among the best endurance athletes in the world.
“We will miss his long, thoughtful and honest answers to questions at press conferences and his strong and courageous running style,” Bramer said in a message posted on Facebook. Mr. Liang competed in Hong Kong last year.
“We’ll always remember him at the finish line of the 2020 event,” Bramer said, “holding his child and embracing his wife.”
The Gansu provincial government has set up a team to investigate the deaths, according to state media.
Mr. Zhang apologized at a televised press conference on Sunday.
“As the organizer of the event, we feel very guilty,” said Mr. Zhang. “We express our grief for the victims and our deep condolences to the families of the victims and the injured.”
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