Beijing half marathon organizers investigate Chinese runner’s controversial win

HONG KONG — Organizers of the Beijing Half Marathon said they were investigating Monday after video of the race appeared to show three African runners slowing down near the finish line so that a Chinese athlete could win.

He Jie, a member of China’s marathon team and a national record holder in the full marathon, had run the entire 13.1-mile race on Sunday with the three African runners. As they approached the finish line, at least one of the runners appeared to wave him ahead.

“I can see that the four individuals have great synergy,” a live sports commentator said as they entered the final stretch. “Throughout today’s race, these four remained together consistently and maintained communication with each other.”

He finished with a time of 1:03:44, while the other three runners — Dejene Hailu Bikila of Ethiopia and Robert Keter and Willy Mnangat of Kenya — tied for second at 1:03:45.

Mnangat told The South China Morning Post that he let He win because they are friends, and that he had not been told to do so or received any financial compensation for it.

Bikila and Keter could not immediately be reached for comment, and He has not publicly commented on the results controversy.

The Beijing Sports Bureau, the municipal body in charge of sports, told NBC News that the incident had its “utmost attention” and that the results of its investigation would be “promptly disclosed to the public.”

Mark Dreyer, author of the book “Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best,” said the situation was “extremely odd.”

“Very common for African pro runners to compete in top provincial races around China — but highly unusual they would let a Chinese runner win so obviously,” he said in a post on X.

Some viewers in China were confused by the footage, which was widely shared online.

“Three African runners clearly eased up and allowed He Jie to take first place, so what significance does such a first place hold?” one sports blogger posted on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform.

“It would be more entertaining if the three people carried a sedan to send He Jie to the finish line,” another comment read.

He, 25, who is aiming for the Paris Olympics this summer, set a national record of 2:06:57 at a marathon last month in Wuxi, China. This was his first half marathon, according to the Global Times, a Chinese state-backed nationalist tabloid.

“I just finished the Wuxi Marathon not long ago, so I was not in my best competitive state. If I had been in the same condition as during the Wuxi race, I believe my performance would have been better,” the newspaper quoted He as saying.

Hu Xijin, a nationalist public commentator and retired editor-in-chief of the Global Times, said he thought the public suspicion over He’s win was “valid.”

“People are questioning whether this goes against the true spirit of sports,” he said in a post on Weibo. “The impact of this incident has already extended beyond the half marathon itself.”

Long-distance running is an increasingly popular sport in China, particularly among the middle class, but cheating has been an issue. In 2018, organizers of the Shenzhen Half Marathon said that 258 participants had been caught cheating, including by wearing fake bibs and taking shortcuts.