A Chinese female marathon athlete was beaten by her Ethiopian rival in the race to the finish line after volunteers attempted to hand her Chinese flags, slowing her down.

He Yinli of China and Ethiopian rival Ayantu Abera Demisse were neck and neck in the last mile in the Suzhou marathon in Jiangsu Province of eastern China on Sunday, news website people.com.cn reported.

A volunteer ran onto the track and tried to hand He a Chinese national flag, but failed.

A few moments later, He came to the second volunteer, who stood in the middle of the track, forcing Demissie to slightly change her course. The volunteer handed the flag to He, who apparently did not know what to do with it. This interrupted her running rhythm.

The Chinese runner continued for a few steps before dropping the flag on the track. She was outpaced by Demisse and finished the marathon five seconds behind her.

The race was over, but the flag incident stirred up a controversy in China.

Commentators blamed the volunteers for destroying the Chinese runner’s chance of victory.

Meanwhile, she was criticized by others as unpatriotic for dropping the flag while racing to the finish line.

Improper handling of the national flag can result in up to three years behind bars, according to China Daily.

He defended herself on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, explaining that she did not deliberately drop the flag. She said that, because the flag was soaking wet, it accidentally slipped from her hand.

Race organizers said the actions with the flags were taken by the volunteers on their own initiative, and were not part of a plan by the organizers. However, they will not be held accountable for what happened as a result, China Youth Daily reported.