Hong Kong Trailwalker controversy

This morning’s editon of the Sunday Morning Post had an interesting headline: “PLA didn’t play fair, runners claim”. The SCMP publication story was about this weekend’s Trailwalker, a 100 km hike/run mainly through the New Territories. This year for the first time two teams of the PLA (Public Liberation Army, the Chinese army) participated, and to many people’s surprise they managed to take place 1 and 2 in the race.

But according to some participants the PLA did not play fair. Why? The main reason was that they had about 50 supporters helping them with food and drinks during the race, and at any given time they had 10 people running with them. According to the teams that finished 3 and 4 these extra runners made it more difficult for them to overtake, or even slowed them down deliberately. Also they complained that after the PLA changed to new shoes after 50 kilometers they just left them there so they had to “dodge around them”.

My reaction: this seems like pure envy by the losers. Chinese compete in a different way than Americans or Gurkhas (the normal winners of the Trailwalker race) and they will do everything can to win. That’s how it works in Chinese business (many foreigners still underestimate this) and that’s also how it works in a race with a lot of media exposure like the Trailwalker. The Chinese wanted to win and that’s what they did. Why is it not playing fair if you have 50 people helping you? Every team has helpers, the PLA just had more of them. You still have to run yourself, it’s not that they carry you or something. And it’s not against the rules. Sure, I can imagine that it’s irritating when you (think that you) are being slowed down, but that’s what competition is all about.

The PLA team had to cover the 100 km trail run over Hong Kong’s hills in the fastest time in order to win the race and that’s a major feat. If you had expected to win and suddenly two new teams are ahead of you, I understand that you would be disappointed. But then complaining to the press about other teams not playing fair goes to far. The PLA teams did a great job winning this race (even though they did not break last year’s record) and I feel it’s not fair play trying to make them look bad. By the way, I wonder what the consequences for the SCMP might be, a big negative headline on the top of the front page about the PLA is probably not something the powerful army people like to see on a Sunday morning 🙂

Update: It turns out that it was indeed a case of PLA-bashing. The HK Standard reported on Tuesday (Nov. 24) that the Oxfam organization defends the PLA, and that team 3 and 5 sent emails denying that the PLA guys were bad sports. So it was indeed pure envy by team 4 and 6, not the PLA but they are bad sports. 

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  1. imho the # of support teammembers wouldn't make a huge difference… but if they really tried to pass them and then slow down to mess up the pace, then it's really rather uncool.. though i suppose coolness is the last thing on their minds..

    and not sure if the gurkhas actually participated this year.

  2. I have not checked out the rules of the Hong Kong Trailwalker event but in Australia these teams would be disqualified…ON the Oxfam Trailwalker Sydney website rule 30 states "Teams are strictly forbidden to meeth their Support Crew at any location along the trail except the checkpoints. Any team found breaching this rule could be disqualified". Are you sure these chinese army teams were playing by the rules..?

  3. @random Also not sure whether there were gurkhas this year, I assumed it but maybe didn't participate.

    @anonymouse Don't know the exact rules of the HK Trailwalker, but all top teams have support crews running with them, so then they should all be disqualified.

  4. TW in Hong Kong don't have such rules in regard to participation of support teams along the route. In fact quite a lot of competitive teams do so. I was super team member the previous year. I ran that trail a lot. Most of the trail is actual quite spacious and its difficult to stop people from overtaking without resorting to elbowing. Especially when teams are spread out thin at that time of the race. I am not in this year but I doubt PLA would go that far. Their winning margin is too wide for support teams to make a difference to the outcome. They can show more sportmanship by being more cordial though.


  5. Regarding your last paragraph…

    "I wonder what consequences for the SCMP might be,a big negative….."

    You work in Shanghai for 9 years, media in your place is different from the media in HK.

  6. Why wouldn't you accept even the possibility that they indeed _deliberately_ slowed the other teams down, while in the same breath saying that "chinese would do anything to win" ? Where's the consistency in your comment?

    You're showing your panda-hugging colors again, Marc.

  7. "But then complaining to the press about other teams not playing fair goes too far."

    Well surely that depends upon whether it's true? If they didn't play fair it's perfectly reasonable to complain about it. If they did play fair and it's just sour grapes on the part of the losers then obviously the losers are in the wrong. It shouldn't just be about unthinking tribal support.

    "Don't know the exact rules of the HK Trailwalker, but all top teams have support crews running with them, so then they should all be disqualified."

    From your own posting it seems the accusation was not simply that they had a large support team but that their support team were there to deliberately obstruct other runners. Both me and you don't know if it's true but your comment makes no sense.

    As to the idea that the SCMP might get in trouble with the PLA, although there are pressures on the free press in HK, luckily we haven't completely succumbed to fascism yet. Thanks for reminding us how lucky we are in that regard compared to where you are and we'll be sure to make sure we resist succumbing for as long as possible.

  8. @joseph parcon I know media is different in HK, therefore the smiley 🙂 at the end of the sentence.

    @anonymous Sure I accept the possibility that they did this deliberately, although I am not 100% convinced that really happened. But it could have especially knowing that Chinese would do everything to win (hence the large support crew)

    @David Agree to your first point.
    The comment about disqualification because of using support crews was in reply to the rules of the Australia trailwalker. If that rule also applies to HK all top teams would be breaking the rules.
    As for the SCMP comment, I guess I should have rephrased that, because the meaning of my smiley was not clear enough 🙂 I'm actually happy to see that the SCMP can still publish this kind of stories, don't think the China Daily would do it.

  9. thanks to marc for blogging this. always fun to see the different responses. here's the latest, if ppl read chinese:

    the gist is that they checked with the team that came in 3rd and they did not encounter any obstructions. and after oxfam heard the complaints, they went to cp3, 5, and 6 and apparently the distance really far apart between the diff teams already.

    so… the conspiratory side of the story is i) the 3rd team dare not say anything bad and ii) the pace was so messed up during sections 1 and 2 that the distance was insurmountable by cp3.

    all in all am leaning towards thinking any blocking was unintentional, or by some over zealous team member rather than some coordinated effort.

    still, no news on where the gurkhas were this year…

  10. Whenever I go to Hong Kong and read the SCMP (although it's far from perfect), I feel like I'm having a revelation: "so THIS is what a "normal" paper feels like in China!" And then I dream, and dream… 😉