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Chinese Official’s Death Draws New Attention to Fatal Ultramarathon

HONG KONG—The death of a local government leader in the western China county that hosted part of a fatal ultramarathon race last month is raising fresh questions about the government’s investigation into the race, which has so far produced few answers about an event that made global headlines.

Li Zuobi,

the Communist Party secretary of Jingtai County in Gansu province, died after falling from his high-rise apartment building in the city of Baiyin on Wednesday morning, according to people familiar with the matter. The 56-year-old official’s death came after he was visited by Communist Party discipline officials earlier that day, the people said.

A state-run magazine, Western China Development, in a social media post Thursday cited local officials in reporting that Mr. Li’s death had been a suicide.

Officials in Jingtai reached 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 the history of mountain sports on May 22, when participants were caught in a freak storm and pelted with freezing rain. A total of 21 runners died from exposure before rescuers could reach them.

Mr. Li is the head official in Jingtai County, one of the event’s official co-hosts. The race was operated by a local company, Gansu Shengjing Sports Co.

News of the race deaths came at a sensitive time, with China’s ruling Communist Party gearing up to celebrate the centenary of its founding in July—a priority for Chinese leader

Xi Jinping.

Under Mr. Xi’s direction, the provincial government of Gansu launched an investigation into the management of the race.

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

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

Users of China’s


-like Weibo social media service forwarded reports of Mr. Li’s death alongside a hashtag associated with the ultramarathon. Weibo data showed that the posts with the hashtag had been read 2 billion times since the disaster occurred.

Several users questioned the silence surrounding the official investigation.

“What about the others?” Wang Fan, a book author, wrote in a post on Weibo, referring to other officials in jurisdictions that co-hosted the race. “The investigation won’t stop here, will it?”

Many of the race’s survivors and family members of the deceased runners have criticized the slow rescue response in the event and expressed hope the official investigation would shed light on who was responsible.

So far, the Gansu government hasn’t issued any public statements about the state of the probe. Authorities have yet to reveal the identities of the 21 deceased runners.

The Gansu government didn’t 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 others were amateur runners familiar only to hometown running groups: a newlywed woman 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 couldn’t get the investigators to tell her where and when the body was found.

“They were very evasive. They said they don’t know,” she said in an interview Wednesday, before news of Mr. Li’s death became public.

Write to Wenxin Fan at

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