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Counting The Cost of the China Cancellation

Author : Rob Howard

Date Posted : 2018/06/03

Teams are told the race is off

The cancellation of the Altay Expedition Race with teams ready to board busses to the start line was a shocking development, one which is fortunately unprecedented in Adventure Racing history.

Over the past couple of years the Altay Expedition Race has been one of the most promoted AR World Series Races.  It was the first ARWS race in Asia, in a remote and mountainous region of China, and was well funded, and seemingly well supported in the Altay region.  The host town of Kanas is a tourist location for Chinese visitors, and much was made of the teams being able to go further afield in the first two races, into areas previously unvisited by ‘outsiders’.

However, the sensitivity of the location seems most likely to have been the cause of the cancellation. The organisers have said the race had the necessary approvals, and the event was part of a wider multi-agency plan to bring tourism to the area, but despite this the plug was pulled at the last minute by ‘local officials’.  There are frustratingly no details (they may never come out) and the Race Director and his team are said to be devastated.

A couple of teams have commented about the requirement to always carry passports and permits, and one said that in the strange atmosphere following the cancellation racers were forbidden to speak to native Kazakhs and other minorities, of which there are many.  The race was set in the Xinjiang region which borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan and several other smaller countries – it’s very politically sensitive.

Recently it has become more so, and this seems most likely to have been the reason behind the cancellation. I just put Xinjiang into Google and the results headlined 3 news stories, all from within the past few days.

  • China Has Turned Xinxjiang into a Police State Like No Other – The Ecomomist
  • Kazakhstan Confronts China Over Disappearances – RFE/RL
  • China’s Uyghur Repression – Jacobin

Against this background and an upsurge in press interest in human rights in the area, a group of multi-national teams, carrying trackers and heading off into remote parts of the region followed by international media might no longer be welcome.

Despite the promotion of the event the race this year had a poor entry of just 15 teams. (Maybe some others did their own Google searches).  Most of those who went this year were international teams, including some of the world’s best, and they had long journeys to get there, and now to get home again. (The Kanas airport, which has previously been used, is not open at present and it’s an 8 hour bus ride to the nearest airport.)

For teams the emotional let-down of being ready to race only to have the event called off at the last minute must have been intense. Getting to a remote expedition race takes a huge commitment; to budget for the entry and the trip, arrange the logistics and all the paperwork, train for the competition and get the time away from work and family.  All that work, cost and the emotion invested in getting to the start will have built up towards race day – only for everyone to have their hopes and expectations dashed at the last minute.

This shock was surely followed by confusion about why, and uncertainty as to how welcome they still were in the area.  Few have said anything publically – in fact the social media silence since the cancellation has been deafening, and the conclusion has to be they are keeping their heads down and getting themselves back home.  

It would be sensible for racers to be very careful what they say on public forums while in China, that is assuming they can even access them where they are.  Once the teams start returning home, have processed what happened, and feel able to comment freely again we can expect a flood of emotional comment and difficult questions.

The race organising team and World Series will have felt much the same emotions but while the repercussions for the teams are more short-term, they will be much more long-term for the organisers, and the fall out is likely to be prolonged.  

X-Trail, the race organisers in China, are unlikely to survive as adventure race organisers even if the company survives. They have made no public comment as yet and have an Ultra Trail race planned in Kanas on June 10th.

The race was a key part of the AR World Series package, and ironically there have been recent discussions on Chinese investment to boost and enlarge the series. The teams and their sponsors will have practical questions on who pays for what and how the cancellation affects the management of the series (ranking points etc.) but the bigger question will be one of trust in the AR World Series badge.

The ARWS will have to work hard to rebuild that trust after the teams have been let down so badly.

[Update from the ARWS; We've now been told teams are being transported to Urumqi by the race organisation and they understand the organisers are reimbursing athletes for flight changes in order for them to head home early, as well as reimbursing their entry fees. They are also collecting information about teams arrival flights and are in negotiation with the government to reimburse these.]

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