China bans extreme sports in wake of Gansu ultramarathon tragedy

China has indefinitely suspended extreme sports events, including ultramarathons, trail running and wingsuit flying, in response to the deaths of 21 long-distance runners in Gansu last month.

Extreme weather hit Yellow River Stone Forest trail race in Gansu province a few hours into the race on 22 May as many of the competitors were crossing a remote and treacherous part of the 100km mountain track. Of the 172 competitors, 21 died and eight were injured. Scores of competitors sheltered in caves, some rescued by residents from nearby villages.

On Wednesday the General Administration of Sport announced an indefinite suspension of all “high-risk sports events with unclear management responsibilities, imperfect rules and unclear safety protection standards”. These included cross-country running, wingsuit flying, ultramarathons and desert races, “in order to fully guarantee the health and to safeguard the lives of the people”, it said.

“The General Administration of Sport will conduct a comprehensive review of sports events, accelerate improvements of the management system, improve standards and regulations, and comprehensively strengthen management to ensure the safety of sports events.”

The administration’s statement also ordered local authorities not to hold competitive sport events unless necessary, and to cancel any other high-risk events in the lead-up to next month’s celebrations of the Chinese Communist party’s centenary, in order to ensure “a good environment and atmosphere”.

It said local governments must conduct risk assessments of competitive activities and related services including safety management, analysis of weather and geological conditions, and emergency rescue. The suspension was first reported by the South China Morning Post.

In the wake of the Gansu race, numerous marathons and running events were postponed or cancelled. Family members and survivors demanded accountability for what some said was a “manmade disaster”.

In its announcement, the administration said the incident was “in part due to sudden changes in weather [and] caused a great loss of human life – a lesson imbued with deeply felt grief.”

Among the concerns raised about the disaster were an apparent lack of awareness of the changing weather, the lack of cold weather gear in the mandatory equipment list, and the long delay in cancelling the race once things began to go wrong.

Multiple accounts of the Gansu disaster hinted at poor contingency plans and communication to local rescue authorities, who struggled to access the terrain and locate stranded competitors. Several hours passed between the first messages for help and the full deployment of rescue teams.

Commentators also noted the explosion in popularity of endurance running in China, suggesting there were too few experienced organisers to run the hundreds of races now held every year. Tourism officials often see a race as a high-profile way to promote their region and to win favour with their superiors, potentially without enough regard for the danger.

China’s high-level central commission for discipline inspection is also investigating the circumstances surrounding the tragedy.