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China arrest five officials over ultramarathon deaths

BEIJING, China: China has punished at least 27 government officials deemed responsible for last month’s ultramarathon deaths, the state-run People’s Daily said on Friday, as the government confirmed the reported suicide death of a senior county official.

Twenty-one people died of hypothermia when extremely cold weather suddenly descended on a government-organised 100-kilometre marathon on May 22 in the rugged northwestern province of Gansu.

Other organisers held to account included the mayor and the Communist Party chief of the city of Baiyin, to which the jurisdiction of Jingtai belongs.

Punishments imposed on officials included major demerit ratings and disciplinary warnings.

Li Zuobi, the Jingtai county party chief, also fell from his apartment building on June 9 and died, state media reported, adding that the police have ruled out homicide while Li’s death was still being investigated.

Officials had been initially tight-lipped about Li’s death, leading to speculations that it was connected to the investigation of the deadly race.

The investigators said the ultramarathon tragedy was a public safety incident brought about by extreme weather including high winds, heavy rain and plunging temperatures, as well as unprofessional organisation and operation.

China’s sports administration said last week it was suspending all high-risk sports events that lack a supervisory body, established rules and clear safety standards.

The activities halted include mountain and desert trail sports, wingsuit flying and ultra-long distance running.

The runners, many of whom were not carrying protective clothing, were hit by high winds and freezing temperatures on a mountainous section of the course, and many suffered hypothermia as a result.

“The race organiser did not have a strong awareness of risk prevention. Before the race, the meteorological bureau sent a blue gale signal [the lowest level of China’s four-tier warning system] but no measures were taken. [The organiser] failed to make windproof thermal equipment mandatory in accordance with the requirements of high-altitude races,” the investigation found.

Liu Changsong, director of the Beijing Mugong Law Firm, said those charged over the deaths could face up to seven years in jail if found to be directly responsible.

“Judicial interpretations stipulate that the death of three or more people qualifies as ‘particularly severe’. This case, with 21 deaths, will fall into that category, those directly responsible would face three to seven years of imprisonment,” he said.