Beer, cigarette and couch addictions may be tickets to an early grave. But in the race to the cemetery gates, it’s not always survival of the fittest.
In death, celebrities elicit an inordinate level of disbelief and sadness, no matter how faded their star, or how tarnished their reputation.
The pressures and surreal lifestyles facing elite athletes aren’t dissimilar, as is the feeling that in some parallel universe we ‘know’ them. Few personify the essence of life as vividly as our ‘indestructible’ heroes. It’s easy to forget they’re mere flesh and blood. The sense of shock the sudden passing of a young and vibrant Marco Simoncelli or Sonny Fai generates is in some ways more acute than a Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson, for whom bingo and sing-song at Happy Valley old folks’ home were never a likely proposition.
Indeed, too many modern day athletes fail to outlive their career, or long enough thereafter to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Of course, needless deaths in sport have always occurred – even at the top level. Yet prevailing medical science and reckless naivety are just as culpable now as they ever were, though in more complex and disturbing ways.
The hedonistic attitudes embraced by many young people are a well documented pitfall exacerbated by the temptations of today’s sporting circus. Professional clubs veer to extremes; cocooning their precious assets in draconian contract clauses, all the while chasing victory with a ‘buy now, pay later’ obsessiveness that ends in broken bodies and broken spirits.
Systematic Eastern Bloc doping used to be the low water mark. Now, unprecedented greed and a warped sense of importance placed on sporting outcomes sees willing athletes the world over being pushed, and themselves dangerously pushing a variety of envelopes.
Inconceivably, an estimated 100,000 sudden heart-attack deaths occur each year among regular people active in sports. Still, few professional football clubs of any code proactively test for defects. Historically, with so many professional leagues, the world game features heavily in terms of recorded athlete deaths – around 80 on the pitch and twice as many off. With over 30 succumbing to cardio trauma, fitness appears no defence to undiagnosed heart ailments (commonly inborn heart-muscle hypertrophy, malformed coronary arteries or myocarditis).
Lawn bowlers may joke about being the most dangerous sport in terms of mortality rates, but American football owns a dark past and a murky future. With 36 directly attributable deaths in 1968 alone, no wonder pre-match prayers became tradition. Subsequent rule changes reduced the figure to just a few per annum by the 1970’s however impact deaths via
Impact related deaths have been joined by a another threat.
Over half the NFL’s playing roster is technically obese. One study reported that offensive and defensive linemen had a 52% greater risk of dying from heart disease than the general population. Diabetes also looms large. Twenty years ago, 300lb behemoths were the exception rather than the rule. Players obliged to super size themselves do well to survive the demands of high intensity professional sport. Weight limits have been suggested but legislating against post-career bulge is impossible.
Whilst professional wrestlers might be the world’s largest hams, the dark side depicted in The Wrestler is shocking to say the least. Commonly in power sports, organ failures are connected to drugs. Of 28 noted deaths, 11 have succumbed to dodgy tickers (not including those for whom the bell tolls after their last flying suplex). Rather damning given the participation figures, four have suicided, three have been murdered and four have overdosed on drugs. Soccer players would also be advised to keep good company; Colombian international Andrés Escobar the most famous of seven professionals to meet a murderous end. Sadly, just as many have killed themselves.
The four wheeled menace and doping induced heart failure account for most of the 50 or so professional cyclists who’ve died in races or in training incidents. Still fresh in the memory are fatal accidents involving Australians Amy Gillett, Luke Harrop, Ben Mikic and Scott Peoples.
Motorsport doesn’t spare its finest exponents – Senna, Brock and Earnhardt to name a few. The road toll isn’t confined to racing tracks. A lethal cocktail of fast cars, alcohol and a sense of invincibility possibly leave athletes more susceptible than the general population. Soccer accounts for 49 road deaths. And American professional sports figure highly – 14 out of 45 rostered NFL players, 11 of 27 NHL, five of 12 NBA and 12 of 58 baseballers to perish.
Generally speaking, flying is an overestimated risk, but not for round ball frequent flyers. Four major crashes have led to 58 deaths, decimating champion team Torina AC (Superga Air, 1949), Manchester United (Munich, 1958), Dutch Surinese nationals (Surinam Airways, 1989) and the entire Zambian squad (Gabon, 1993). Surprisingly, with 162 game seasons, Major League Baseball accounts for just nine air related deaths, though two of these couldn’t be more dramatic or distressing. Days after piloting the Yankees to a playoffs loss, pitcher Cory Lidle fared even worse at the helm of his plane, crashing into a Manhattan apartment in 2006. In December 1972, twelve times All Star and Gold Glove (and all-round good guy); Roberto Clemente set out to deliver aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims. Just a year after being World Series MVP, shortly after take-off his shonky, overloaded plane went down in Puerto Rica.
Since the 1960’s, Italian soccer’s Torina calamity has been superseded by the nerve wasting disease which claimed legendary baseballer Lou Gehrig. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis has prematurely called full time on 51 players from the top three divisions. Formaldehyde, used as a field pesticide, is believed to be the primary cause (investigators also attribute other possible triggers).
Richie Benaud typically hit the mark when he bemoaned using the word ‘tragedy’ in cricket commentary, considering the scoreboard’s relative significance to life’s bigger concerns. Granted, sports fatalities are rare, even in notoriously hazardous capers like horse racing. However, the popular (misquoted) line by US football coach Henry Sanders; ‘sport is not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that’, is somewhat erroneous. More accurately, sport is the embodiment of life and the occasional pinch hitting display by the Grim Reaper further illustrates that like sport, the rules of existence can be just as unfair, and the result as difficult to predict.