Published: 10:08, April 17, 2024
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Probe into Beijing Half Marathon controversy underway
By Cui Jia
Chinese runner He Jie, Ethiopian Dejene Hailu Bikila and Kenyans Robert Keter and Willy Mnangat take part in a half-marathon in Beijing, China on April 14, 2024. (PHOTO / REUTERS)

The organizer of the Beijing Half Marathon announced that an investigation is underway, after an online uproar was caused by videos that show three African runners appearing to slow down near the finish line to allow Chinese runner He Jie to win by a second.

Video clips of Sunday's 21-kilometer race showed Kenya's Willy Mnangat and Robert Keter, Dejene Hailu of Ethiopia and home star runner He approaching the finish line. Mnangat looked at He and seemingly beckoned his Chinese opponent to go ahead of him and the two other runners close to the finish line.

The video clips went viral as suspicions were aroused about the leading runners appearing to let He overtake them, winning with a time of 1:03:44, which fell short of the Chinese half-marathon record by one minute and 11 seconds.

The 25-year-old He won the gold medal in the marathon at the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and is the Chinese national marathon champion.

On Monday evening, the organizer of the Beijing Half Marathon announced in a statement that it takes people's inquiries about the final result of the race seriously. An investigation team will inform the public about the results of the probe in a timely manner, the statement said.

Mnangat told BBC Sport Africa that the trio ran as pacemakers. He added that four runners had been contracted to help He break the national record, and that one of them did not finish the race.

After seeing the video clips on social media, many people criticized the result and questioned the integrity of sportsmanship. Zhao Ke, a veteran marathon runner, said on Tuesday that it's very clear that the African runners were the pacers for He.

"It's pretty common for professional runners to find pacers to help them achieve better results during races, but most of the public aren't aware of that. Both the organizer and broadcasters failed to inform the public about it, so it's only natural for them to raise questions," Zhao said.

It's also a common practice for pacers to participate in the competitions as athletes. "It's an athlete's choice to become a pacer or not, so it's not about integrity of sportsmanship," Zhao said.

"People shouldn't blame the runners, but all pacers should be clearly marked especially those who serve for elite athletes," he added.

Zhao said that many marathon runners are disappointed that He had no strong competitors, so the international event wasn't as exciting as it should have been, and the combination of all these factors made the incident go viral on social media.

The veteran runner also said he hopes that marathon organizers and sponsors in China can learn from what happened at the Beijing Half Marathon to avoid such controversies, and that they will bring fiercely competitive runners.