bbc– When Zhang Xiaotao woke up he was in a cave and somebody had lit a fire to keep him warm. He had no idea how he’d got there.
Zhang’s frozen unconscious body had been found by a passing shepherd who’d wrapped him in a quilt and carried him over his shoulders to safety. He was one of the lucky ones.
In May this year, 21 competitors died at an ultra-running event in northern China hit by extreme weather conditions: hail, heavy rain and intense gales caused temperatures to plummet, and nobody seemed prepared for it.
Only a small number felt comfortable talking about what happened – and some have been threatened for doing so.
The sun was out on race day in Baiyin, a former mining area in China’s Gansu province. Some 172 athletes were ready to run 62 miles (100km) through the Yellow River Stone Forest national park.
The organisers were expecting good conditions – they’d had mild weather the previous three years. They had even arranged for some of the competitors’ cold-weather gear to be moved forward along the course so they could pick it up later in the day.
But soon after Zhang arrived at the start line, a cold wind began to blow. Some runners gathered in a nearby gift shop to take shelter, many of them shivering in their short-sleeved tops and shorts.
Zhang started the race well. He was among the quickest to reach the first checkpoint, making light work of the rugged mountain trails. Things started to go badly wrong just before the second checkpoint, some 20km into the course.
“I was halfway up the mountain when hail started to fall,” he later wrote in a post on Chinese social media. “My face was pummelled by ice and my vision was blurred, making it difficult to see the path clearly.”
Still, Zhang went on. He overtook Huang Guanjun, the men’s hearing-impaired marathon winner at China’s 2019 National Paralympic Games, who was struggling badly. He went across to another runner, Wu Panrong, with whom he’d been keeping pace since the start.
Wu was shaking and his voice was trembling as he spoke. Zhang put his arm around him and the pair continued together, but quickly the wind became so strong, and the ground so slippery, that they were forced to separate.
As Zhang continued to ascend, he was overpowered by the wind, with gusts reaching up to 55mph. He’d forced himself up from the ground many times, but now because of the freezing cold he began to lose control of his limbs. The temperature felt like -5C. This time when he fell down he couldn’t get back up.
Thinking fast, Zhang covered himself with an insulation blanket. He took out his GPS tracker, pressed the SOS button, and passed out.
Closer to the back of the field, another runner, who goes by the alias Liuluo Nanfang, was hit by the frozen rain. It felt like bullets against his face.
As he progressed he saw somebody walking towards him, coming down from the top of the mountain. The runner said it was too cold, that he couldn’t stand it and was retiring.
But Nanfang, like Zhang, decided to keep going. The higher he climbed, the stronger the wind and the colder he felt. He saw a few more competitors coming down on his way up the mountain. His whole body was soaking wet, including his shoes and socks.
When he finally did realise he had to stop, he found a relatively sheltered spot and tried to get warm. He took out his insulation blanket, wrapping it around his body. It was instantly blown away by the wind as he’d lost almost all sensation and control in his fingers. He put one in his mouth, holding it for a long time, but it didn’t help.
As Nanfang now started to head back down the mountain, his vision was blurred and he was shaking. He felt very confused but knew he had to persist.
Halfway down he met a member of the rescue team that had been dispatched after the weather turned. He was directed to a wooden hut. Inside, there were at least 10 others who had decided to withdraw before him. About an hour later that number had reached around 50. Some spoke of seeing competitors collapsed by the side of the road, frothing at their mouths.
“When they said this, their eyes were red,” Nanfang later wrote on social media.
Zhang, meanwhile, had been rescued by the shepherd, who’d taken off his wet clothes and wrapped him in a quilt. Inside the cave, he wasn’t alone.
When he came to, about an hour later, there were other runners also taking refuge there, some of whom had also been saved by the shepherd. The group had been waiting for him to wake up so they could descend the mountain together.
At the bottom, medics and armed police were waiting. More than 1,200 rescuers were deployed throughout the night, assisted by thermal-imaging drones and radar detectors, according to state media.
The following morning, authorities confirmed that 21 people died, including Huang, who Zhang overtook, and Wu, the runner he’d kept pace with at the start of the race.
A report later found that organisers failed to take action despite warnings of inclement weather in the run up to the event.
As news of the deaths broke on social media, many people questioned how the tragedy could have happened. Some competitors, such as Zhang and Nanfang, chose to write about their experiences online to help people understand what it was like.
But Zhang’s post, written under the name ‘Brother Tao is running’, disappeared shortly after it was published.
When Caixin – a Beijing-based news website – re-uploaded his testimony, a new post appeared on the account a week later, begging the media and social media users to leave him and his family alone.
It later transpired that Zhang had suspended his account after people questioned his story. Some accused him of showing off for being the sole survivor at the front of the pack, others had sent him death threats.
“We don’t want to be internet celebrities,” he wrote online, adding that the man who saved him had also faced pressure from the media and “other aspects”.
“Our lives need to be quiet,” he wrote. “Please everyone, especially friends in the media, do not disturb me and do not question me.”
The survivors weren’t the only ones to find themselves put under pressure.
One woman, who lost her father in the race, was targeted with social media abuse on Weibo after questioning how her father was “allowed to die”. She was accused of spreading rumours and using “foreign forces” to spread negative stories about China.
Another woman, Huang Yinzhen, whose brother died, was followed by local officials who she claimed were trying to keep relatives from speaking to each other.
“They just prevent us from contacting other family members or reporters, so they keep monitoring us,” she told the New York Times.
In China it’s typical for relatives of those who have died in similar circumstances – where authorities face blame – to have pressure placed on them to remain silent. For the government, social media attention on any possible failings is not welcome.
A month after the race, in June, 27 local officials were punished. The Communist Party secretary of Jingtai County, Li Zuobi, was found dead. He died after falling from the apartment in which he lived. Police ruled out homicide.
The Baiyin marathon is just one of many races in a country that was experiencing a running boom. Its tragic outcome has brought the future of these events into question.
According to the Chinese Athletics Association (CAA), China hosted 40 times more marathons in 2018 than in 2014. The CAA said there were 1,900 “running races” in the country in 2019.
Before Covid hit, many small towns and regions attempted to capitalise on this by hosting events in order to bring more tourism into the area and boost the local economy.
After what happened in Baiyin, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection accused organisers of some of the country’s races of “focusing on economic benefits” while they are “unwilling to invest more in safety”.
With Beijing’s hosting of the 2022 Winter Olympics just months away, China has suspended extreme sports such as trail running, ultramarathons and wingsuit flying while it overhauls safety regulations. It is not yet clear when they will restart. There have been reports that not even a chess tournament managed to escape the new measures.
But without events like these, people wishing to get involved, perhaps even future star athletes, are finding themselves frustrated. In some cases, as Outside Magazine points out, athletes could take matters into their own hands, venturing into the mountains without any regulation whatsoever and putting themselves at risk.
Mark Dreyer, who runs the China Sports Insider website, wrote on Twitter: “If this incident has removed the top layer of the mass participation pyramid – as seems likely – there’s no telling what effect that would have at the lower levels.
“The long-term effects of this tragic – and avoidable – accident could also be significant.”
Chelsea run riot against Juventus in performance befitting of champions
independent– Roman Abramovich was in London but couldn’t make Stamford Bridge on Tuesday night, and he probably missed what he has most wanted during all his time at Chelsea.
This was a display entirely befitting of European champions, where they just motored over one of the continent’s biggest names in magnificent fashion. Even more pleasingly, the first three goals in this 4-0 win over Juventus were scored by different academy products – with the exceptional Reece James standing, or perhaps sprinting, given his energy, above all.
That was what was most ominous for the rest of England, and Europe. Chelsea put in such a performance without Romelu Lukaku, Mason Mount, Kai Havertz and with N’Golo Kante having to go off before half-time.
Despite that, there was no disruption to the team’s level. They just kept going, in the way they have been purring of late.
That is another striking element about the team right now. It is remarkable to think they started this season in rather muted fashion: controlling games, yes, but not exactly creating much. They seem to have gone up a level in recent weeks, with the promise of even more to come. This put them top of the group and through to the Champions League last 16, while perhaps illustrating they stand at the top of the competition’s main contenders.
Some of this should be put into the context of Juventus’ own drop-off. This was nowhere near the calculated 1-0 victory over Chelsea as recently as September, let alone the title-winning spell of most of the last decade. Their ongoing rebuild was simply deconstructed.
Massimo Allegri’s side just couldn’t match Chelsea’s intensity. The Italian was getting extremely animated from the game’s start, aghast at the gaps in his team. Thomas Tuchel had evidently learnt a lot from that September setback.
Chelsea had an energy that was missing that day, meaning Juventus on Tuesday evening couldn’t sit back comfortably, let alone break. As early as the first minute, Kante was just cutting through their half to force an opportunity that saw Chilwell miskick from just yards out. It should have been 1-0. They wouldn’t have to wait too long. Juventus were just hoping to make it to half-time, such was the extent of the siege.
The brilliant James almost caught Wojciech Szczesny out with a smart free-kick from wide on 24 minutes, before Trevoh Chalobah fired in from the corner. Chelsea were away.
They also knew they needed to score one more to ensure they had a superior head-to-head against Juventus. So, for the second half, they just upped it some more.
The three-minute spell just after half-time was precisely the type of thrilling whirlwind both Tuchel and his ultimate boss would have idealised. Juventus by then really couldn’t live with them. They were overwhelmed.
That was never clearer than for the clinical nature of James’s strike. With Juventus unable to clear their lines, and the ball bouncing around so invitingly, the wing-back imposed a bit of order and class on the fair. James chested the ball down before arrowing a supreme strike into the far corner of Szczesny’s goal. That made the young England international Chelsea’s top scorer for the season, which says a lot about both his evolution and the multi-angled nature of Tuchel’s attack. That was only emphasised by the different nature of the next goal, mere moments later. He had more to come, and so did Chelsea.
On for Kante, Ruben Loftus-Cheek slipped the ball through for Callum Hudson-Odoi to finish. It was that kind of night for Chelsea. It was barely a match.
Long before the end, the home crowd were mocking Juventus as much as their former Arsenal goalkeeper, as the oles and waheys came out for so many passes. Chelsea were toying with Juventus by then.
There was still the crescendo to come, a beautifully creative moment to top it off. James swung over a divine David Beckham-like crossfield ball for Hakim Ziyech, who whipped it through for Timo Werner to finish. This Chelsea, remarkably, look like they’re only getting started.
‘A step in the right direction’: Norwegian women hail beach handball uniform policy change
euronews– Norway’s women’s beach handball team have hailed the change to the International Handball Federation (IHF) uniform policies.
Female players are now permitted to wear “body fit tank tops” and “short tight pants” when competing.
Norway had protested against previous uniform rules that said women must wear “fitted, low-cut bikini bottoms”.
The IHF sparked backlash by fining Norway €1,500 penalty for wearing shorts instead at the European Beach Handball Championship last summer.
But Euronews reported last month that the IHF had quietly altered its official policies on “improper clothing”
Norway’s women’s team has welcomed the move, saying the new uniform is a “step in the right direction”.
“After several years of trying to change the dress code in our sport, we finally made it,” the team said in an Instagram post.
“We have now taken a step in the right direction, and hopefully the sports seems a bit more open and inclusive (sic) now.”
“We are really looking forward to get attention based on our sporting achievements and not our uniforms”.
The team added that they know “many players have turned down opportunities” in the sport because of the previous uniform regulations.
Women’s uniforms for official beach handball competitions had for years been criticised as too degrading or too impractical.
Denmark’s sports minister Ane Halsboe-Joergensen said the bikini bottom regulations were “obsolete” and “belonged to another country”.
Meanwhile American musician Pink called the rules “very sexist” and even offered to pay Norway’s fine.
Government ministers from five European countries — Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland — called for the rules to be changed “in accordance with gender equality”.
One of those ministers — Norway’s former Minister for Culture and Equality Abid Raja — said the uniform policies were “completely ridiculous,” “clearly discriminating and outdated”.
Raja also welcomed the new rules, but told Euronews that he wished the IHF “had taken the full step towards gender equality.”
“I had rather seen that the Federation would listen to the female players themselves and ensured equal rules for male and female players,” Raja said.
The Norwegian Handball Federation also said “it would have been even better if the rules consisted of one set of uniform regulations independent of gender.”
Euronews has contacted the IHF for a response to Norway on the new clothing requirements.
Super League clubs tackle ‘monopolistic’ UEFA on EU law
dw– The European Super League collapsed so quickly and spectacularly in April that many observers assumed that would be the end of the matter for the foreseeable future.
Yet the controversial idea lives on through the efforts of the three clubs who never formally withdrew their support for it: Spanish pair Barcelona and Real Madrid and the Italian club Juventus.
Those clubs still believe the idea can become a reality and are taking legal action against UEFA and FIFA, the European and world football governing bodies, with that hope in mind. The action claims UEFA in particular runs football in Europe as a ‘monopoly’.
Through a Spanish-based consultancy company called A22, which represents the Super League, the three clubs are seeking a ruling from the European Court of Justice (CJEU) as to whether or not UEFA and FIFA are breaking EU competition rules in the way they control and operate football in Europe.
The case has been brewing since the Super League, in its original guise, collapsed amid a wave of furious fan protests six months ago. A22 originally brought the case before a commercial court in Madrid, but judges there referred it to the European Court of Justice, asking for clarification.
A potential legal landmark
This week, the Financial Times published details of documents relating to the case now before the EU court.
“Contrary to other sporting competition markets, UEFA and FIFA keep and fiercely defend a monopolistic position in European football that goes against competition law, despite efforts from other operators to access the market,” it says, according to the paper.
The three clubs argue that UEFA’s control of football in Europe is monopolistic and goes against EU competition law in that it allows UEFA to place sanctions on clubs while also profiting as the tournament organizer of lucrative competitions such as the Champions League and Europa League.
The case could end up being a landmark one, should the CJEU side with the three clubs. A ruling in their favor could have profound implications for the way football is organized in Europe and may give them the legal foundation to establish their own competitions and tournaments such as the Super League.
The CJEU has been asked by the Spanish judges to give a preliminary ruling on the issue, which means it is being asked to clarify if EU law is currently being adhered to in how football is being governed in Europe. That will bring the EU’s primary document for competition law, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, into sharp focus.
In December 2020, the CJEU upheld a European Commission ruling that the International Skating Union had infringed that treaty by banning professional speed skaters from taking part in competitions which it had not sanctioned.
That case took more than seven years to reach that point, suggesting that the football case may also drag on beyond a preliminary ruling by the CJEU. The preliminary ruling in A22’s case is not expected until towards the end of 2022 or early 2023 at the earliest.
The Super League was a PR disaster. Fans of the six English clubs involved staged vociferous protests, forcing the project to collapse just 48 hours after it had first been announced. There was ever a rare apology from the bank JPMorgan, which had pledged financial backing.
Supporters’ main issue was that the Super League would completely upend club football, creating a protected pan-national elite which would undermine national leagues and other existing competitions. It would also go against football’s “pyramid” league structure, whereby all clubs can theoretically reach the top of the game if they perform well enough.
It is clear that the Super League still lacks popular backing, and several national governments have made clear their support for UEFA for this legal case. Meanwhile, a European Commission spokesperson quoted by the Financial Times says the EU will make observations “related to the compliance of UEFA and FIFA rules with EU competition and internal market rules.”
Barcelona, Real Madrid and Juventus are still determined to establish a Super League of some kind and they are confident of a landmark ruling in this case against UEFA and FIFA.
Were it to happen, it would not be the first time that a ruling from the CJEU shook the foundations of professional football. Back in 1995, the court’s “Bosman ruling,” named after the professional player who took the case, transformed the way in which player contracts and transfers are handled in the game.
One of the lawyers behind that case, Jean-Louis Dupont, is a central figure in this one and he is confident that a similarly historic verdict could be in the offing.
In an interview with Off The Pitch, a football business news website, he pointed to the fact that the judge in Spain issued an injunction preventing UEFA from punishing the clubs behind the Super League. “To give an injunction so quickly normally means the judge thinks the merits of the case are good,” he said.
“The questions raised to the European Court of Justice by the Spanish Court are not about the Super League, but rather about UEFA’s monopolistic position. Is it possible for UEFA, a private Swiss association, to operate as sole regulator, operator and gatekeeper for 100% of international competitions?” he posited.
So far, the answer to that question has been a clear “yes.” The Super League fiasco appeared to bolster that status further. Clearly though, this match is not over yet.
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