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Death of Chinese officials draws new attention to fatal ultramarathon

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The death of a local government chief in West China’s county that hosted part of a fatal ultramarathon race last month raises new questions about the government’s investigation into the race, which has so far produced little response on an event that has made the headlines around the world.

Li Zuobi, secretary of the Communist Party of Jingtai County in Gansu Province, died Wednesday morning after falling from his high-rise building in Baiyin City, people familiar with the matter said. The 56-year-old official’s death came after he received a visit from Communist Party discipline officials earlier today, people said.

A state magazine, Western China Development, in a social media post on Thursday cited local officials as saying Mr Lis’ death was suicide.

Jingtai officials contacted by the Wall Street Journal declined to deny or confirm the news.

The 60-mile high-altitude ultramarathon, which passed through a mountainous geopark in Jingtai, became one of the deadliest events in mountain sports history on May 22, when participants were caught in a storm monster and bombarded with freezing rain. A total of 21 runners died from exposure before rescuers could reach them.

Mr. Li is the head of Jingtai County, one of the official co-organizers of the event. The race was organized by a local company, Gansu Shengjing Sports Co.

News of the race’s deaths came at a sensitive time, with China’s ruling Communist Party preparing to celebrate the centenary of its founding in July, a priority for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Under the leadership of Mr. Xis, the provincial government of Gansu launched an investigation into the management of the race.

National sports authorities last week suspended all trail running in China, as well as other extreme sports events such as ultra-distance running and wingsuit flying, saying better regulation was needed.

Freezing rain and high winds hit a high-altitude ultramarathon in May in northwest China. After an overnight search and rescue operation, Chinese state media reported that 21 runners out of 172 participants had died. Photo: Stringer / Reuters

Users of the Twitter-like social media service Weibo in China forwarded information about Mr. Lis’ death with a hashtag associated with the ultramarathon. Weibo data showed that posts with the hashtag had been read 2 billion times since the disaster.

Several Internet users have questioned the silence surrounding the official investigation.

And the others ? Wang Fan, author of books, wrote in an article on Weibo, referring to other court officials who co-hosted the race. The investigation won’t end there, will it?

Many race survivors and family members of the deceased runners criticized the slow pace of relief at the event and expressed hope that the official investigation would shed light on those responsible.

So far, the Gansu government has not released any public statement on the status of the investigation. Authorities have yet to reveal the identity of the 21 riders who died.

The Gansu government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

An unofficial list of the deceased published by local media and confirmed by the Journal includes Liang Jing, one of China’s best-known professional marathoners. Many more were amateur runners familiar only to running groups in their hometowns: a bride from Chongqing, a minority firefighter from Xinjiang, and a sports teacher and his former student from Gansu.

The 21-year-old daughter of runner Lu Zhengyi, a business manager from Guizhou, said she could not get investigators to tell her where and when the body was found.

They were very evasive. They said they didn’t know, she said in an interview on Wednesday, before news of Mr Lis’ death came to the public.

Write to Wenxin fan at [email protected]

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