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China blames 32 in ultramarathon disaster, but prime suspect dead

BEIJING – Less than three weeks after 21 people died in freezing rain and high winds during a 100 km run in northwest China, officials said on Friday that 31 people would be held for officials and that the head of the county in which the ultramarathon was held died in a fall from a high-rise building.

Officials said the county Communist Party leader Li Zuobi was primarily responsible for the high death toll in the race. Authorities confirmed on Friday that Mr. Li died on Wednesday, but the circumstances were not immediately clear.

Five employees of the company that organized the May 22 ultramarathon in Yellow River Stone Forest Park in Jingtai County, Gansu Province, will face criminal charges, authorities said. Twenty-six local party officials were punished, with measures including administrative warnings, loss of their jobs, detention and criminal investigations.

The speed of the investigation and the speed with which disciplinary measures were imposed and criminal complaints prepared underscore a constant theme in Chinese politics in recent years: Local leaders are quickly blamed when disasters strike.

When the central authorities in Beijing want to show that they act quickly in times of crisis, they often blame the actors on the ground. As a result of coronavirus outbreaks, coal mine explosions and other incidents, local leaders often lose their jobs or face disciplinary action from the Communist Party.

Jingtai County is on the northern outskirts of Baiyin, a desert copper mining town that has struggled in recent years after the rich copper veins were depleted. Baiyin has a nationwide reputation for chronic unemployment and high crime rates, including gruesome murders of women and girls by a serial killer who eluded police for 28 years.

Jingtai County and Baiyin tried to enhance their grim images by hosting the ultramarathon, with runners sailing the Shepherds’ Trails through spectacular terrain of golden mountains and sharp stone pillars.

But when freezing rain and hail fell on the race, 21 of 172 elite runners died, including two of China’s top marathoners. Another runner is still hospitalized after being seriously injured. The runners wore little more than T-shirts and shorts.

China’s central government and its public news media have suggested that local officials put profits before security. But provincial government investigators were less severe on Friday, describing a lack of planning.

Baiyin police received a call on Wednesday indicating that a man fell from a building and later confirmed that it was Mr. Li, the county official. Li Ming, deputy director of the Gansu Province Public Security Department, said Mr. Li’s death was not treated as a criminal matter, but he did not call it suicide.

It is common for officials to be placed under surveillance or detained during initial disaster investigations. Provincial authorities did not say whether Mr. Li was under surveillance by authorities at the time of his fatal fall, which allegedly occurred at his home.

Beijing suspended nationwide ultramarathons and other long-distance races last week. The heavy loss of life during last month’s race also raised concerns around the world over whether ultramarathons participants should be required to wear additional clothing and other equipment in inclement weather.

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