Safety concerns raised after ill-fated marathon tragedy

July 18, 2020 | 10:00
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An array of extreme sport activities have rapidly been more available in the country in recent years. But along with unique experiences thanks to the surrounding natural landscapes, risks are also stalking those with weakly-prepared organisation.
1500p 2223 safety concerns raised after ill fated marathon tragedy
Despite the recent safety concerns, marathons and other running and racing events are increasingly popular in Vietnam

On June 20, 40-year-old Thai Don Thanh, living in Ho Chi Minh City, was participating in the Dalat Ultra Trail IV-2020 international marathon. Embarking on the 70km stretch from the city’s Valley of Love with hundreds of other attendees, two people were unfortunately swept away by the floodwaters while crossing the Golden Stream on the road to Heaven Gate in Lac Duong district of Lam Dong province. One person was rescued, but tragically Thanh did not have the same luck.

As soon as the incident occurred, the organisers of the international marathon suspended the three-day competition and mobilised vehicles to transport the thousands of other participants back to the starting point.

The fact that a participant drowned during a major event like the Dalat Ultra Trail has triggered a warning on management and licensing loopholes, as well as measures to ensure safety for athletes to attend.

The Dalat Ultra Trail is the first international trail marathon in the Asia Trail Master system in Central and South Vietnam. It is an annual international marathon and terrain bike race, usually attracting a large number of professional and amateur athletes. The event has become more and more attractive with more than 6,000 professional and amateur athletes participating this year, as compared to 2,000 at the very first event.

The race usually takes place every March, but due to the impacts of the pandemic this year it was instead organised for June, coinciding with the time that Dalat and the Central Highlands entered the rainy season.

Many assume that the main reason for such a tragic incident is that the organisers bit off more than they could chew, licensing for the organisation of the marathon while lacking a thorough assessment of weather conditions. In addition, there were a very large number of participants but the support and rescue force was too weak and suffered from shortages, leading to untimely action.

Safety awareness arises

Soon after the tragic incident, the General Department of Sports and Physical Training sent a dispatch to the communal functional departments on ensuring safety and security, as well as medical care during the organisation of sporting events.

“Regarding such events, it is necessary to arrange adequate medical and rescue forces to promptly respond to unexpected incidents,” the official letter stated. It also requires sport activities organisers to ensure security, safety, health, and COVID-19 prevention measures during local events.

In addition, the General Department of Sports and Physical Training also assigned Lam Dong Department of Culture, Sports, and Tourism to inspect and re-evaluate the organisation of the Dalat Ultra Trail, thereby finding limitations that need to be addressed and improved.

According to a survey by a local newswire, there are nearly 40 running events held nationwide, which can be divided into the two main categories of road running with distances of 5km, 10km, 21km, and 42km; and trail marathons.

The parties organising these marathons are often general event organisers, such as Sunrise Events Vietnam, which takes care of the Ho Chi Minh City Techcombank International Marathons (Vietnam’s largest running competition), Techcombank Ironman 70.3 Vietnam (the third-largest triathlon in Vietnam), and Vinpearl Luxury Landmark 81 Race to the Summit (the largest and highest staircase race in Vietnam).

As for other larger trail runs and triathlons, enthusiasts may be familiar with the Vietnam MTB Series – which is also the organiser of Ultra Dalat Trail marathon.

One of the leading names for marathons and other sports activities such as terrain biking and paragliding, Topas Travel is in charge of the annual trail runs like the Vietnam Mountain Marathon, Vietnam Trail Marathon, and Vietnam Jungle Marathon in various mountainous provinces across the country, attracting enthusiastic participation of domestic and international athletes.

However, when asked about mandatory criteria when organising a marathon and other specific regulations to ensure the safety for participants, Topas representatives declined to provide a response.

Speaking to VIR about the measures to ensure safety for participants, a representative from DHA Vietnam, the name behind the large-scale road marathon VPBank Marathon Hanoi, Halong Heritage Marathon, and Can Tho Heritage Marathon, said that for all of its marathon events, the organiser has always closely co-operated with the local authorities and relevant departments.

In addition, it is important to work with and ask for consultation from specialised units in each specific field, such as the Vietnam Athletics Federation (VAF), health departments, musculoskeletal service providers, or police and security parties.

“DHA works with relevant systems to design and closely monitor running tracks, setting up adequate support staff on the run with some 100 referees and 300-500 volunteers,” said the representative.

“We also ensure that there is sufficient provision of necessary services such as emergency points, and requests advice from functional agencies and health departments. Necessary documentations are also provided to ensure that participants are well-informed, knowledgeable, and able to measure all the risks that may occur to them before deciding to participate in the event.”

Neccessary preparedness

Discussing the attractiveness of recent marathons and other sporting activities in Vietnam, Nguyen Manh Hung, general secretary at the VAF, said that running the exotic Vietnamese terrains is special, because the athletes not only get strength from training but also have the opportunity to awaken their hidden potential.

At longer distances, when competing in harsh terrains, athletes can be in harmony with the majestic nature, pushing their bodies to the max. By overcoming tough challenges with bad weather and craggy racing roads, athletes can overcome their limits. However, running trails often poses more dangers than other types of road runs.

“It was such a woeful incident at the Dalat Ultra Trail. It is an accident that no one would expect, but there is potential for risks in any sport, especially adventurous ones. Therefore, to minimise risks the organisers should be well-prepared at the highest level, especially in dealing with emergencies. As for athletes, they must be aware of when to stop because that is the best way to ensure their safety,” said the representative.

Trang Ha, who has participated in many at-home and international marathons and co-ordination sports, shared, “Ill-prepared organisation will lead to unexpected consequences. I have witnessed collisions between participants and local people, or obstacles such as vehicles on the running road.”

She also added that before entering the competition, attendees like her have agreed to sign a pledge to take responsibility for their safety. However, such shared risk does not mean that nothing happens.

“After the recent accident, we will carefully consider some other criteria before deciding whether to attend – for example, who are the names behind that event, and what is their experience and reputation,” Ha added.

1500p 2223 safety concerns raised after ill fated marathon tragedy

Trang Ha - Marathon and triathlon athlete

The safety of a race usually depends on track and risk management. It does not mean that a domestic race will be less safe than an international one.

When I ran a distance of 70km at the Vietnam Mountain Marathon in Sapa, there were parts of the road that were too muddy and slippery because of the rain 24 hours earlier. I passed numerous muddy roads with traces of new and steady steps which were made for the athlete to set foot.

At that time, I wanted to thank the tournament team for urgently reducing the danger from the weather. While just a week earlier, in Taipei, I was racing at Discovery Taiwan - 53km through many terrain trails, running along the coast, climbing cliffs, and more. Even though six people were drowned by waves, and a hurricane forecast to come in the afternoon meant nearly 300 athletes decided to leave, the race still took place.

In addition to handling situations on the spot, adequate safety equipment and volunteer support are extremely important. The organisers arranged volunteers for every kilometre of forest and coastline to instruct the runner, even along a few difficult parts of the road. There were several dozen volunteers, from experienced coaches and retired athletes to director of jogging academy to support runners over the race.

Finn Mahler - Germany

When it comes to more adventurous sports in Vietnam, I find that the whole extreme sports scene here is still quite young and not so developed. Although you can find people doing extreme sports, such as downhill mountain biking, bungee jumping, martial arts, or bouldering, these more adventurous sports are less popular than in the West.

However, while I’m hoping to see more in that regard in the future, I think that Vietnam’s approach to these kinds of sports is in no way inferior to other countries. In fact, I think that Vietnamese take safety very seriously and prepare well before arranging any kind of highly-dangerous activity.

David Alexander - UK

Safety should always be the top priority, especially in these times. Unfortunately there have been recent overcrowding problems at football games here because people are so keen to get back to watching their teams play after social distancing was relaxed.

Thirty years ago, countries in Europe suffered disasters at football games where many fans were crushed in the stadium.

Many regulations were improved to ensure it could not happen again, and Vietnam must ensure that it does not happen here. For taking part in more adventurous activities, first and foremost the people in charge must be fully trained professionals, qualified to carry out the activity and hold the safety of customers in their hands. Anything less than that is not good enough.

Nguyen Manh Hung - Race director, VPBank Hanoi Marathon 2020

At every VPBank marathon, applicants are required to abide by the race’s terms and conditions and sign a commitment of liability and self-responsibility for health. This is an international practice that applies to any international routes.

To ensure the safety of the participants, DHA Vietnam (the organiser) will be responsible for warning the athletes about problems that may occur during competition, and invite health professionals (for example, musculoskeletal specialists from Hong Ngoc Hospital and the American Chiropractic Clinic) to draft out a guide on trauma and how to handle injuries.

We also organise long-distance training courses where we invite international coaches to Vietnam to train for amateur athletes, and distribute specific documentation on running routes prior to a running event.

During the run, we collaborate with health service providers and sponsors to provide enough support kiosks with medical staff along the track, while ambulances and emergency points are always on call.

By Mai Oanh

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