Sports are usually viewed as fun forms of exercise and entertainment, but it would be hypocritical not to mention that in certain sports, especially in those where there is a high level of competition, accidents can happen, some of them so serious that they can lead to death. Furthermore, there have been times when the Mafia was involved, or the political machine, or violent social groups with hidden agendas that have caused things to go haywire in the sports world. Before we say more and ruin it for you, here are 25 tragic sports related deaths that shocked the world.
Italian-born boxer and world champion in two different weight classes Arturo Gatti was synonymous with toughness and heart mainly because of his epic trilogy of fights against “Irish Micky Ward” (The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg, is dedicated to him). This trilogy is considered one of the toughest and bloodiest in boxing history. Unfortunately the end of Gatti’s life wasn’t as glorious and the former world champ was found dead in Brazil while vacationing there with his Brazilian wife. Did his wife murder him or did the champ commit suicide? The jury is still out on this and many questions have yet to be answered.
Payne Stewart was a prolific golfer and a three-time major championship winner who was extremely popular with spectators for his exciting style of play and fancy clothes. However, in 1999 his career was cut short by an airplane accident that cost him his life a few months after his latest triumph in the U.S. Open.
Malcolm “King Kong” Kirk
Malcolm “King Kong” Kirk and his partner, King Kendo, were in a tag-team match with Shirley “Big Daddy” Crabtree and Greg Valentine when one of the most tragic events in professional wrestling’s history occurred. The incredibly massive Big Daddy was particularly known for his signature body slams but when he slammed “King Kong” with his famous Belly Splash, Kirk turned gray and looked severely sick. He was immediately rushed to the hospital where he died moments later. According to the doctor who did the autopsy Kirk had a heart condition, so it wasn’t really Big Daddy’s Belly Splash that killed him, but it definitely triggered it.
Nearly seventy years later Jack Lovelock’s case remains a mystery and still raises more questions than answers. After serving as a major in the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War II, the 1936 1,500-meter Olympic champion was happily living with his wife and their two daughters in New York. On a cold day in December 1949, he called his wife from work to let her know that he would be home early because he was not feeling well. As he was waiting for the train at the Church Avenue subway station in Brooklyn, he fell onto the tracks, probably as a result of one of the dizzy spells to which he was subject after an earlier accident, and was killed by an oncoming train. Some people said it was bad luck while others speculated that he committed suicide.
Only a few years after Len Bias’s unfortunate end, Reggie Lewis, another Boston Celtics star, added his name to the long list of athletes who died in their prime when he went into cardiac arrest on the basketball court during an off-season practice session in the summer of 1993. Lewis had shown symptoms of a heart problem a few months before the fatal incident, but after a few monthly treatments he was wrongfully cleared to train and play again.
Corrie Sanders, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, will always be remembered as the only man who beat convincingly —via a second-round knockout—one of the most dominant heavyweight boxers in history and current, undisputed champion Wladimir Klitschko in one of the biggest sporting upsets ever back in 2003. Corrie Sanders retired from boxing in 2008 and was enjoying family life in his native country of South Africa until he was murdered four years later. He was fatally shot in an armed robbery at a restaurant on September 22, 2012, where he was celebrating his nephew’s twenty-first birthday. Sanders was wounded in the stomach and taken to the hospital where he died a few hours later.
November 21, 1920, is remembered as “Bloody Sunday” and for a good reason if you ask us. That afternoon Black and Tans of the Royal Irish Constabulary, supported by members of the Auxiliary Division, opened fire with their machine guns and rifles on the crowd at a Gaelic football match between Dublin and Tipperary in Croke Park when the Black and Tans burst upon them. Twelve spectators were killed, another sixty injured, and one Tipperary player shot dead. The player, Michael Hogan, age twenty-four, became the victim of one of the worst sporting massacres (thanks to its heavy political backdrop) in history.
The Lightning That Killed an Entire Football Team
In 1999, a single stroke of lightning instantly killed a whole soccer team. The eleven players were all between twenty and thirty-five years old. This freak accident happened during a match held in the eastern province of Kasai, in Congo. The strangest thing of all, however, was that the players from the home team came out of this tragedy unscathed.
Peter Blake was a decorated yachtsman from New Zealand who won many titles during his career including the Whitbread Round the World Race and the Jules Verne. He also led his native country to successive triumphs in the America’s Cup. Unfortunately, in 2001 Blake was shot and killed by pirates while he was on an environmental exploration trip on the Amazon River, monitoring global warming and pollution for the United Nations. His death shocked New Zealand, where more than 40,000 people attended a memorial service for him at the Auckland Domain.
The summer of 1993 brought great sorrow to the world’s basketball community when one of the greatest European players and one of the very first foreign NBA superstars died in a car accident in Germany. The knowledge that Petrovic was not wearing a seat belt and was asleep in the passenger seat while his then-girlfriend, Turkish model and basketball player Hilal Edebal, was driving when the accident occurred made fans even more upset over the tragedy that took the life of the amazing twenty-eight-year-old player.
Rocky Marciano is widely considered one of the greatest heavyweight boxers who ever lived and the only one who retired undefeated. Non-boxing fans, unfortunately, were introduced to “the Rock from Brockton” because of his tragic end. On August 31, 1969, on the eve of his forty-sixth birthday Rocky was a passenger in a small private plane that crashed outside Iowa. Thanks to this tragedy, one of the most iconic American athletes lost his only, but most significant, “bout”.
Many boxing fans consider Salvador Sánchez the greatest boxer to die in his prime and for that reason his boxing greatness can’t be judged with any true accuracy or historical precision. Just when the twenty-three-year-old WBC Featherweight world champion looked unbeatable, on August 12, 1982, he crashed while driving his Porsche 928 sports car, dying instantly.
Steve Prefontaine is considered one of the greatest American middle- and long-distance runners of all time despite the fact that his career was cut short at age twenty-four. Prefontaine was a phenomenal runner and in 1972 became the first track athlete to wear Nikes. For some time he also held the American record in seven different distance track events from the 2,000 to the 10,000 meter, a unique record that has yet to be broken. Unfortunately, in his prime and winning one race after the other, Prefontaine died in a car accident, putting an end to the legend’s career.
Len Bias was a first-team All-American college basketball forward at the University of Maryland and one of the biggest NCAA basketball stars of his era. In the 1986 NBA Draft Bias was selected by the reigning champions the Boston Celtics as the second overall pick but before he joined forces and even trained with the likes of Kevin McHale, Danny Ainge, Robert Parish, and Larry Bird, Len Bias died, shocking the American sports world. Two days after his selection Bias was found dead from a cocaine overdose, and the NBA never got the chance to admire one of the greatest talents of that generation.
Agostinho was one of the most decorated Portuguese bicycle racers of his time and a six-time national champion. Additionally, he took part in many major international races, including the most significant of all, the Tour de France, in which he competed thirteen times. Unfortunately for him and the world of professional cycling, Agostinho became the victim of one of the most ironic tragedies in the sport’s history. At Quarteira, during the 1984 Tour of the Algarve (he was leading at the time), a dog ran into the race a few hundred meters before the finish line and Agostinho hit it. He fell to the ground and injured his head, a trauma that put him in a coma a few hours later from which he never emerged.
Andrés Escobar’s own goal against the USA, the host nation of the 1994 World Cup, signaled the end of Colombia’s hopes for qualifying to the next round. Colombia went home early and Escobar was murdered outside a nightclub by two men who argued with him about his mistake in that game. One of the murderers was a member of a powerful Colombian cartel, which made many people believe that Escobar’s murder might have been a bit more mysterious than some originally thought.
In the seventy-third minute of the 2003 Confederations Cup semi-final match between Cameroon and France at Lyon’s Stade de Gerland, Foé was innocently jogging along. Nobody on the field or in the crowd could understand how critical his condition was when he suddenly collapsed on the ground in the center circle. Medical and support staff attempted to resuscitate him on the pitch, before carrying him on a stretcher to the bowels of the stadium where he took his last breath after many failed attempts by the doctors to restart his heart.
Just like this, in the summer of 2003, the soccer community across the world had witnessed live the death of Marc-Vivien Foé in what might be one of the most shocking moments in soccer history.
Exactly twenty years ago one of the greatest and most impressive racers in the history of auto sports, Brazilian superstar Ayrton Senna, was killed in an accident while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. This is undoubtedly one of the most shocking deaths in the history of any sport and Senna remains to-date the greatest and most recent driver to have been killed in a Formula One World Championship event.
Football star and American war hero Pat Tillman rejected a multimillion-dollar contract to play the game and instead chose to serve his country. In 2002 he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, his career and life were cut short when he was killed in action in 2004. Even though the exact circumstances of his death are still in question, his legacy is not and Tillman is considered one of the bravest American athletes who turned his back on a comfortable, luxurious life for the love of his country.
The Munich Air Disaster
The Munich air disaster is undoubtedly one of the worst sports tragedy in British history and one of the worst in European soccer. On February 6, 1958, British European Airways Flight 609 crashed on its third attempt to take off from a slush-covered runway at Munich-Riem Airport in West Germany, which caused the death of twenty of the forty-four passengers on-board. The injured, some unconscious, were taken to the nearest hospital where three more died, resulting in twenty-three dead, the vast majority of them players from Manchester United.
The Munich Massacre
The Munich massacre will always be remembered as the darkest moment in the history of the Olympics. During the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, eleven Israeli athletes would be taken hostage and eventually murdered, along with a German police officer, by a Palestinian group named Black September. German police officers killed five of the eight Black September members as well. Thus, the most significant sporting event in the world, which celebrates the union of all peoples and nations across the globe, had turned into a deadly, tragic event that will hopefully never be repeated.
The 1964 Lima Soccer Riot
It was May 24, 1964, and an incredibly important game was taking place in Lima, Peru’s Estadio Nacional. Argentina was playing Peru in a qualifier that would see the winner go to the Tokyo Olympic Games. Argentina was winning 1 to 0 and when Peru finally scored the Uruguayan referee, Angel Pazos, didn’t count the goal (unfairly, according to the reports) causing the Peruvian crowd to react violently. This reaction ended up being the deadliest riot in soccer history (between fans and police) and resulted in the deaths of more than three hundred people and saw as many as five hundred injured.
Chapman died a few hours after he was hit in the head by a ball thrown by Yankees pitcher Carl Mays in 1920. He became the first and only MLB player to-date to die from an injury that occurred during a major league game and his death was heavily used during the ‘50s as the most significant example of why baseball players need to wear helmets when at bat.
The Heysel Stadium Disaster
The 1985 European Cup final between Juventus (Italy) and Liverpool (England) was held at Heysel Stadium in Brussels. The Heysel disaster, which occurred on May 29, 1985, led to the deaths of thirty-nine supporters (mainly Italian), six hundred injured, and a blanket ban of English clubs from European competition for five years. What had started as a peaceful, joyful sporting event ended up looking like a war zone between the two teams’ hard-core fans in what is to this day the most tragic moment in European soccer history.
The 1955 Le Mans Disaster
The 1955 Le Mans disaster is the deadliest, most tragic accident that ever occurred in motorsport history. Pierre Levegh, a forty-nine-year-old driver, was involved in a crash that caused large fragments of racing car debris to fly into the crowd, killing eighty-three spectators and Levegh. An estimated 120 more were injured. According to the creepy reports, the hood of the car decapitated the tightly jammed spectators like a guillotine blade.