Chinese runner’s win invites suspicion after rivals appear to step aside

Chinese runner He Jie’s victory Sunday in the Beijing Half Marathon is facing a probe after his win was called into question by Chinese internet users because a trio of African runners appeared to deliberately slow down to let him win.

A video clip of the finish to the race shows Kenya’s Willy Mnangat turn toward He and gesture him to move ahead as the four men run neck and neck just meters from the finish line.

Former 5km world record-holder Robert Keter, also of Kenya, then appears to wave at He to overtake the pack while signaling for his compatriot and Ethiopia’s Dejene Hailu to hang back.

The Chinese runner crossed the finish line in 1:03:44 to claim the $5,500 first prize, with the African trio just one second behind in joint-second place.

The video clip shows the African runners applauding He’s win and patting him on the back, though the Asian Games marathon champion appears less enthused despite winning his first ever competitive half marathon.

He, 25, who has broken China’s marathon record twice in the past two years, told reporters after the race that he “was not in my best competitive state” — but he did not address the controversial finish.

Some Chinese internet users called for an investigation into the race, while others demanded action from organizers.

“The so-called ‘ways of the world’ should not taint the fairness of competition in sports. Fairness is always at the core of sporting spirit,” said one user on social platform Weibo.

Another popular comment said: “I support an investigation, and fair play is vital,” with the user adding they hoped authorities “can give a clear explanation to maintain fairness of competition and respect athletes’ efforts.”

In a statement Monday, race organizers the Beijing Municipal Sports Bureau and Chinese Athletics Association said they attach “great importance” to the matter and were conducting an investigation.

Chinese sports company Xstep, which sponsors both He and the Beijing Half Marathon, told state-run outlet The Paper the situation is “being investigated and verified by multiple parties.”

“Further information will be communicated as soon as possible,” Xstep said in a statement to the outlet.

World Athletics, the sport’s international governing body, said in a statement to CNN Tuesday that it was aware of the footage of the race circulating online and understood local authorities were investigating.

“The integrity of our sport is the highest priority at World Athletics,” it said.

Some observers agreed the finish to the race seemed unusual.

“It’s just a bad look, however you slice it,” said sports analyst Mark Dreyer, author of “Sporting Superpower: An Insider’s View on China’s Quest to Be the Best.”

“It’s one thing for four runners running right at the end to potentially hold hands or cross the line together in a show of sportsmanship. That’s not what we saw.

“It’s not a sprint finish for anyone other than He Jie. It doesn’t take a genius or running expert to figure that out.”

He, who hails from northwest China’s Ningxia region, is considered one of the country’s most promising long-distance runners. He is ranked 77th in the world in men’s marathon by World Athletics and is expected to lead the way for Asian runners in the upcoming Paris 2024 Summer Olympics.

“He Jie is elite,” Dreyer said. “He doesn’t need charity like this.”

This story has been updated with additional information.

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