Yellow River Stone Forest of Jingtai, Gansu Province, China. National Geopark, Danxia Landform. China travel, famous natural exotic landscape. Sandstone towers, large canyon dry desert valley
The mountain race was held at the Yellow River Stone Forest, a toursit destination known for its imposing jagged rock formations in China's Gansu province.
A tragedy high on a mountain was a wake-up call for China's booming marathon industry
When Zhang Xiaotao set off last weekend on a 100-kilometer (62-mile) ultra-marathon through the jagged mountains of northwestern China, he didn't know he was embarking on one of the deadliest journeys in the country's sporting history.
Zhang is the lone survivor of the six athletes who were leading the race on a remote stretch of track when extreme weather caused freezing rain and a sudden dive in temperature.
A local herdsman dragged Zhang into a cave, which shielded him from succumbing to the hypothermia that killed his closest competitors. In total, 21 of the 172 participants died, including some of China's best-known marathon champions.
The tragedy shocked China's running community and prompted public outrage, with many questioning whether the organizers had planned the race properly and prepared participants for the extreme weather.
As China's rising middle class picks up running as a hobby, marathons and trail races have exploded in popularity over the past years.
According to the Chinese Athletic Association, 1,828 marathons and other long-distance races were held across China in 2019 before the pandemic hit, drawing more than 7 million participants. In 2014, there were just 51 races.
The skyrocketing growth was partly spurred by government efforts to develop the country's sports industry. In 2014, the General Administration of Sports of China announced that organizers no longer had to seek approval from the administration or its subsidiaries to host commercial sports events -- a major boon to the running industry.
Local governments rushed to host races to promote tourism and drive consumption, but lax industry regulation and weak government oversight has created safety hazards, according to experts and a race organizer CNN has spoken to. They say races are often poorly organized, and sometimes plagued by injuries and deaths.
In an emergency meeting last week, top sports officials acknowledged there were "problems and inadequacies" in the supervision of sports events, and called on organizers to improve safety measures and contingency planning.
"All departments and units ... should focus on preventing and resolving major risks as a key priority," said a readout of the meeting.
The provincial government of Gansu, where last Saturday's event was held, has launched an investigation into the incident, but critics say the deadly race is a wake-up call to authorities across the nation -- especially in poorer provinces where the promise of profits is tempting organizers to cut costs.