On May 22, 21 ultrarunners perished in the Gansu province of China during a violent storm of rain, hail, and freezing temperatures. The Chinese government responded on Wednesday by announcing an indefinite ban on ultra races in the country, as well as “newly popular sport activities that involve high risk,” like wingsuit flying. As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has only just begun its investigation, it’s unclear which outdoor sports the latter category will include, but the details will be important. Depending on the length and range of the ban, the decision could stifle the growth of outdoor adventure sports in China, which have exploded over the past decade, especially among the growing Chinese middle class. Ultrarunners across the globe are worried about the future of the sport in the country. “There is something truly special about moving through the world under your own power,” says ultrarunner Mike Wardian, who has competed in several events in China. “I am so sad for the athletes and their families and the race organizers who won’t be able to compete in this way.”
I’ve been covering the Chinese running craze for years, and for those familiar with the Chinese ultrarunning scene, the tragedy wasn’t all that shocking. There is an enormous range of quality, safety standards, and planning at Chinese races, and many outdoor athletes there are still learning to manage weather risk in the mountains more cautiously. The government response hasn’t been surprising, either: the CCP tends to respond to civic tragedies with blunt, outright bans rather than nuanced reform, and that’s exactly what they’ve done this week.
The Chinese central government in Beijing is often unaware of unregulated booms occurring in distant provinces—in this case, running—until something bad happens. Then the Party cracks down. Political scientists use the wonky term “fragmented authoritarianism” to describe this dynamic of disjointed and siloed governance in China, but I’ve always thought an ancient Chinese proverb does the job better: “Heaven is high, and the emperor is far away.” Though the Chinese running boom had been expanding for decades across distant mountains with the enthusiastic support of local officials, the central government wasn’t always aware of the growth or its potential dangers. Until now.
But what about China’s runners, who number in the tens of millions? Will races and other outdoor sports ever come back for them? Here, the CCP faces a more complicated problem. Since China opened its economy but not its political system in the 1970s, the CCP has maintained an informal agreement with its citizens: in exchange for continued one-party authoritarian rule, Chinese people have been allowed greater immediate personal freedoms in areas of civic life like recreation, which have been widely explored. “Sports give you self-confidence. They make you healthier. They make you happier,” 53-year-old Chinese runner Yu Yan told me a few years ago after finishing an ultra.
Banning something like a popular outdoor sport, however, crosses this line of personal freedom, which makes this response from the CCP so unnerving. Such violations have been increasingly common under President Xi Jinping. For ultrarunners and organizers in China, seeing a similar intrusion into a hobby like running is especially troubling. Most in the Chinese ultra scene would agree that outdoor adventure sports need to be made safer in China, but permanently banning the sport—which has provided a space for individualism, adventure, and freedom in people’s daily lives—would be a shame. “Running is a way of spreading enthusiasm, solidarity, and ability among people,” said one runner who worried about the government’s coming response to the tragedy. “I think a better way to deal with it is for organizers to improve infrastructure and various measures of safety.”
A ban would also endanger the income that commercial racing has provided to many Chinese athletes who have fled the harsh Soviet system of sports academies. “I have a friend who’s got a wife, two small kids, and parents. He left the sports system to make money racing,” Qi Min, a top Chinese runner, once told me. If commercial racing disappears, runners trained in sports academies with little other education won’t have the same avenues to make a living. Given these realities and the popularity of running in the country, CCP leaders will likely feel public pressure to allow ultra events again, and after a while, local officials may lobby to bring back races for all the fanfare they bring to their cities.
It would be a mistake, however, to frame all questions surrounding the oversight of adventure sports as being unique to China. Regulation of adventure sports has always been suspect to many outdoor athletes, and even infrastructure that makes races safer can be viewed with skepticism. “With this sport becoming more mainstream, with more people than ever getting involved, the risks are greater and we are more likely to see adverse outcomes,” Nathan Montague, a British ultrarunner who’s raced in China, told me. “So both race directors and organizers have a greater degree of responsibility to negate these risks and protect these individuals from themselves. But ultimately, the duty of responsibility needs to be taken by the athlete.”
When I reported on the top-flight medical team that provided support to the Ultra Gobi, another premier event in China, some athletes viewed the extra support as a luxury, even a bit overblown. Ultras can’t ever fully guarantee safety, some pointed out, and athletes can’t ever be entirely free without being allowed to take risks. “I really love that in the U.S. most races don’t have requirements,” Wardian says. “The race might suggest stuff, but it’s up to you. It’s a free country, and it’s your choice.” He added that diversity in race regulation is probably a good thing. “Europe is more strict with mandatory kits and certifications. I like both, it’s just different.”
In any case, an outright ban will likely be self-defeating. In the absence of formal races, Chinese athletes will keep venturing into the mountains, but with even less oversight. One can only hope that the CCP will acknowledge this reality and devise more thoughtful reforms than bans. “It is impossible to remove risk in the mountains,” Wardian says. “They don’t ban surfing if someone drowns.”