Chinese marathon runner loses gold medal after volunteers thrust national flag

Society & Culture

Imagine that you are in first place at the end of a marathon, sprinting toward the finish line, when suddenly a patriotic volunteer barges into you to hand you a national flag…

This is what happened to Hé Yǐnlì 何引丽 at the Suzhou Taihu Marathon in Jiangsu on November 18. A supporter rushed onto the track and thrust a Chinese flag at He. She continued running without taking the flag, but then a second bystander appeared and pushed the flag on He. She took it, and then dropped it.


While she was distracted by the flag, Ethiopian long-distance runner Ayantu Abera Demisse passed her, beating her across the finish line by five seconds.

The video that captured the interference went viral on the Chinese internet with some people criticizing He for being “unpatriotic.” “How come the score is more important than the national flag?” Wèi Jìng 魏静, a sports blogger and marathon runner, asked (in Chinese) on Weibo.

Facing mounting criticism from people like Wei, He later felt the need to clarify on social media. “I did not [intentionally] throw it away,” He explained. “The flag was completely drenched, and my arms were stiff. It went out when I swung my arm.”

Screen Shot 2018 11 19 at 10.27.17 AM

In a heated debate over whether He was unpatriotic to let the flag slip from her hand, many internet users sided with the runner and blamed the volunteers for the accident. “If they really must make athletes drape the Chinese flag over their shoulders, they should do it after the athletes finish,” an internet user commented (in Chinese).

Despite the sharply divided public opinion surrounding the practice, forcing marathon runners to carry national flags while approaching the finish line has become increasingly common in recent years. In October, athlete Lǐ Zhǐxuān 李芷萱 encountered the same circumstance during the Chengdu Marathon. But unlike He, while Li got briefly distracted when a volunteer handed a Chinese flag to her, she picked up her pace quickly and won the gold medal.

Sports commentator Wáng Xiǎogāng 王晓刚 told (in Chinese) The Paper that in the case of the Suzhou Taihu marathon, Wisdom Sports Group, the organizer of the event, ordered volunteers to “hand the national flag to the first Chinese player to rush the line.”

The competition in Suzhou is part of Run China (奔跑中国 bēnpǎo zhōngguó), a marathon series co-sponsored by CCTV, China’s central state-owned television network. According to the official description, the series includes three themes unrelated to sports:

  • One Belt, One Road (一带一路 yīdài yīlù)
  • Beautiful China (美丽中国 měilì zhōngguó)
  • Resolutely implement reforms (将改革进行到底 jiāng gǎigé jìnxíng dàodǐ)

One of the main organizers of the marathon later revealed (in Chinese) to The Paper that offering Chinese athletes national flags before they cross the finish line is indeed a pre-arranged procedure, but it is not exclusive to this event only; it is instead required by all Run China events aiming to “spread the main-theme propaganda.”

A leaked screen capture of a document regarding the event’s “finish-line ceremony” was widely shared on the internet. One procedure reads: “Arrange volunteers to wait for both male and female lead runners, and hand flags to them.”

Screen Shot 2018 11 19 at 10.27.45 AM

CCTV, however, published an editorial (in Chinese) in which the author denounced He’s critics. “What this turmoil has reflected are the marathon host’s immaturity in organization and some people’s misinterpretation of patriotism. These are more important questions than where to put a sopping-wet flag.”

The host later apologized in an interview (in Chinese) with Beijing Youth Daily. “The accident happened because it was rainy and chilly on that day, and the road was wet and slippery. We have been trying to contact He Yinli after the marathon, and we are sincerely sorry.”


He Yinli waving a Chinese flag after Changsha International Marathon.