Beijing (CNN)To patriotically embrace the national flag, or win a marathon?
That was the dilemma facing a Chinese runner during the final phase of the Suzhou Marathon in eastern China on Sunday.
While running her final leg, athlete He Yinli was handed a Chinese national flag from a "volunteer" who rushed to her from the sideline.
He -- who was trying to overtake the front runner -- held on to the flag for a few seconds before dropping it to the ground. She ended up losing to an Ethiopian competitor and placed second in the race.
The live stream of the marathon showed another "volunteer" had made a similar attempt moments earlier but the 30-year-old runner didn't take that flag.
The episode, caught live on television, has stirred a heated debate across the country.
A commentator on state broadcaster CCTV, which aired the race, voiced his disapproval.
"Right now racing for the championship is the most important thing," he said. "At this moment, she is gritting her teeth and this off-track factor has affected her performance."
When the Chinese athlete's Ethiopian rival steadily moved further away from her and crossed the finish line, the commentator lamented: "It's such a pity at the end."
Lack of patriotism?
While most Chinese internet users have condemned the interference in He's race and bemoaned her missed opportunity for the championship, others have questioned her patriotism for dropping the flag.
"The video shows that He Yinli crumpled the flag and tossed it away -- is the race result more important than the national flag?" wrote Wei Jing, another Chinese marathon runner, on Weibo, the Chinese equivalence of Twitter.
The athlete responded by posting on her Weibo page that she didn't throw the flag away on purpose and asked for understanding from the public.
"The national flag was drenched and my arm was stiff -- the flag just slipped away as I swung my arms," He said.
The accusation of "tossing away" the national flag is a serious charge in China. Any act deemed disrespectful of the national flag in public can result in up to three years in prison, according to China's criminal code.
Despite the debate over He's treatment of the national flag, many people have directed their criticisms at the organizers, amid reports that Chinese runners are required to drape themselves in the national flag before reaching the finish line.
Faced with criticism on social media, Suzhou officials -- after initially claiming the "volunteer's actions were entirely individual decisions" -- turned around and apologized to He on Monday.
"Flag-draping is a good thing and it awes the onlookers at the scene," said one unnamed organizer to the state-run Beijing Youth Daily newspaper. "But the cold and rainy weather, which caused the road to be slippery, contributed to the accident."
CCTV, a media partner for a series of marathon races in China, has also weighed in, coming to He's defense.
"How does one express patriotism? It's certainly not holding it up high and walking around with it every day," the state broadcaster said in a commentary posted on its Weibo page. "It's a sense of identity from the bottom of one's heart."
"To athletes, winning is patriotism."