Past Sport Tragedies

Ten(10) Historical Sport Tragedies

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Sports have undoubtedly emerged as a very prominent feature of the collective culture of human beings on a global scale. It is a form of competitive physical (and sometimes, not physical) activity which also provides entertainment for participants and spectators alike. The ancient Egyptians are known to have developed swimming and fishing as sports thousands of years ago. Ancient Persia is also regarded as the origin of polo and jousting. Sports was so ingrained in the culture of the ancient Greeks that they went ahead and created the Olympic Games, a worldwide sporting event that still takes place every four years.

Industrialization and the advent of mass media have helped to increase accessibility for people to actively participate in sports, as well as increase its popularity among spectators on a global level. A record 3.5 billion people tune in to watch the FIFA World Cup every four years. Sports are definitely are great way for people to catch fun and be entertained, let off some steam from everyday stress; and it sure delivers aplenty on that.

However, tragedies are ugly realities of every sphere of life and sports have been no exception. Over the years, spectators have witnessed some of their most beloved sportsmen and sportswomen cut down by the cold hands of death while they are involved in something that we have all come to love and enjoy.

In no particular order, here are some of the most troubling tragedies that have struck participants in the history of sports.


Growing up, the average Nigerian child must have at one time or the other been told the interesting folklore that is the legendary Samuel Okwaraji’s tragic death. As the story goes, the then Green Eagles of Nigeria had been 99-0 down to India and one consolation goal from Nigeria would win the game if only they could score just one goal. Nigeria had had a glorious chance to score that special goal and that chance had fallen to Okwaraji, but the Indians allegedly bewitched the ball and turned it into stone. This hadn’t fazed the patriotic Okwaraji as he kicked the ball (now turned stone) anyway and scored the “winning” goal for Nigeria. Nigeria had “won” the game, but Samuel Okwaraji had paid the ultimate price for it as he slumped and died on the pitch shortly after.

What happened on that fateful day had not been as dramatic as it had been narrated to the average Nigerian child. However, it doesn’t take anything away from the tragic death of Samuel Okwaraji, a Nigerian midfielder who slumped on the field of play and died in a World Cup qualification match against African neighbours, Angola at the Lagos National Stadiun in Surulere, Lagos state.

The beloved player, who was also a qualified lawyer with a master’s degree in international law from the University of Rome, slumped in the 77th minute of the game. The cause of death was put down to a congestive heart failure. He died on 12 August 1989 at the age of 25.


Becky Zerlentes was an amateur boxer and martial artist who died on April 2, 2005 in the Colorado State Boxing Senior Female Championships at the Denver Coliseum after she was knocked out in the third round by her opponent. Zerlentes, whose amateur boxing career statistics at the time of death read six wins and four losses, was also a professor of geography and economics at Front Range Community College’s Larimer County campus.

She fell unconscious after she was knocked down and she never regained consciousness. The cause of death was ruled as blunt force trauma to the head. She died aged 34.


Joaquim Agostino was a Portuguese professional bicycle racer who tragically died in 1984 after he collided with a dog that ran onto the track a few hundred meters to the finish line at the Tour of the Algarve. Having turned pro late at the age of 27, Joaquim, popularly called Tinho, had been Champion of Portugal for six consecutive years between 1968 to 1973 and had participated in 13 Tours de France, finishing 12 times.

He had been leading the race when a dog ran onto the track and they collided.  He fell and hit his head, but he mounted his bike and completed the race. He walked to an ambulance and then to his hotel before he was taken to a hospital two hours later where an X-ray examination showed he had broken the parietal bone in his skull. He slipped into a coma and died in an ambulance as he was being rushed to the nearest hospital in Lisbon for treatment. He was 41 when he died.

There is a monument built in his honour on top of the Parque Verde da Varzea in Torres Vedras.


Malcolm “King Kong” Kirk was an English-born professional wrestler who died in the ring in a professional tag team boxing match on 24 August, 1987 at the age of 50. Kirk, who had been a professional rugby player before he started wrestling, was participating in a tag team match alongside King Kendo against Shirley Crabtree and Steve Crabtree at the Hippodrome.

British wrestling legend Shirley Crabtree popularly known by his ring name “Big Daddy” had delivered his signature Big Splash on Kirk, and it seemed to have adversely affected him as he “turned an unhealthy colour”. He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital he was rushed to. According to the findings that emerged after an inquest into his tragic death, it was discovered that he had a pre-existing heart condition.


Nicole Reinhardt was an American professional cyclist who died when she struck a tree after she had been thrown off her bicycle in a 42-mile circuit race in Arlington, Massachusetts in 2000.  The 24-year-old, who had won two gold medals at the Pan American Games, had been competing in the final race of the 2000 BMC Software Cycling Grand Prix consisting of four races. She had won the previous three and was on course to win the tournament until her left pedal and foot hit a concrete curb which had propelled her towards the tree. The $250,000 prize money was donated to her family and used to establish the Nicole Reinhardt Foundation in her honour.


The death of 28-year-old Cameroonian international, Marc-Vivien Foe is one of the most shocking deaths to have ever happened inside a football stadium. The Lyon midfielder was representing his national team in the semi finals of the FIFA Confederations Cup against South American side, Columbia inside the Stade de Garland in Lyon, France. The midfielder was routinely jogging around the centre circle area alone when he collapsed on the floor. Medics spent 45 minutes trying to revive him after he was stretchered off the pitch. He died shortly afterwards the autopsy conducted stated that his death was due to a heart-related problem, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

He was post-humously awarded with the Commander of the National Order of Valour and his French club Lyon retired his number 17 shirt until fellow countryman Jean II Makoun joined the side. On wearing the special number, Makoun said, “In memory of Marc, for me and for the whole Cameroon, this will be for something.


Benny Paret was a welterweight champion who died due to injuries inflicted on him in a match against championship rival, Emile Griffith. Paret, popularly called “the Kid” had won the title two times before and was defending it against Griffith when tragedy struck.

In the twelfth round, Griffith cornered Paret on a side of the ring and landed an astonishing twenty nine successive punches that proved fatal as Paret slumped and slipped into a coma. He died ten days later at the Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan from a massive brain hemorrhaging. He was aged 25 when he died.

Ayrton Senna is regarded as one of the greatest racers in the history of motorsports with three Formula One championships. The Brazilian F1 superstar was killed in an accident while he was in the lead at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

On May 1, 1994, at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari circuit in Italy, Senna was leading the pack on the sixth lap, with Michael Schumacher behind him when he rounded the high speed  Tamburello corner on the seventh lap. His car veered off the racing line and hit the concrete retaining wall off the track.

Despite medical attention on the scene, Senna could not be revived and died later that evening at Bologna’s Maggiore Hospital. After an inquiry into his tragic end, his accident was said to have been caused by a failure to the steering column.

The Brazilian national football team collectively held a banner on the field and dedicated their World Cup victory to Senna after they beat Italy in the 1994 finals.


Reggie Lewis was a professional basketball player for the NBA’s Boston Celtic till he tragically passed away in 1993.

In an off-season practice match on July 27, 1993, at the Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, the 27-year-old American suffered from sudden cardiac death on the basketball court. Repeated attempts to revive him by two university police officers failed. The cause of his death was attributed to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a structural heart defect.

Lewis had previously exhibited symptoms of heart defects when he collapsed in a playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets. The number 35 shirt worn by Lewis throughout his career was retired by the Boston Celtics on March 22, 1995.



Stefan Bellof was a German racing driver who was killed in an accident during the 1985 1000km of Spa World Sportscar Championship race. Before his death, he had set the fastest lap ever at the Nordschleife configuration at the Nurburgring in 1983 while driving a Porsche 956. He also won the Drivers’ Championship in the 1984 World Sportscar Championship.

On September 1, 1985, in the championship’s seventh race of the season, Bellof hit the rear Jacky Ickx’s Porsche 962C which caused him to blast through a barrier and his car came to a grinding halt after hitting a secondary wall. His Brun Porsche caught fire moments after, and Bellof died of massive internal injuries. The race organizers ended the event earlier than planned out of respect for the 27-year-old.



Cristiano Junior was a Brazilian forward who died after an on-field collision in Bangalore, India on December 5, 2004.  The 25-year-old, who had just been signed by Dempo in September 2004 and was the highest paid player in India at the time, collapsed in the 78th minute of a Federation Cup finals  game against Mohun Bagan.

He had chased a ball into the box when he collided with the opposition goalkeeper Subrata Pal. He scored a goal before he staggered away and collapsed. Attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. By the time he was rushed away from the stadium where no doctors were present to Hosmat Hospital, Junior already died of a heart stroke. Subrata Pal was suspended from playing for two months for criminal negligence over the incidence after Dempo lodged a complaint. Junior’s number 10 shirt was retired by the club.

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