Westerners will find it bizarre, but Chinese runner He Xianli, who tossed away the national flag she’d been handed in a desperate attempt to win a race, was briefly accused of a lack of patriotism. 

The incident occurred in the final kilometre of the Suzhou Taihu Marathon in eastern China on November 18. A volunteer on the course handed He the flag, after He ran past an earlier volunteer without taking the proffered flag. But at the time He was neck-and-neck with Ethiopian runner Ayantu Abera Demisse, who crossed the finish line in first place–thanks in no small part, most observers would insist, to He being distracted by the flag.

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What’s unbelievable about the whole thing is not even that race officials would allow it to happen (Demisse had to dodge the volunteer in order to avoid a collision), but that some accused He of a lack of patriotism, and of putting her desire to win ahead of her love for her country. They saw the act of throwing the flag on the ground as an act of disrespect to the flag, which is considered a serious offence in China. There were also reports that the Chinese athletes were required to drape themselves in the flag before reaching the finish line. 

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According to CNN, the race commentator was the first to criticize He for the dropped flag, and the criticism was repeated by others online. In her own defense, He responded that she dropped the flag accidentally (which seems unlikely, if you watch the video). The consensus eventually reached was that the incident was the fault of race organizers, and not He.

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