We turn to sports for entertainment as a means of competing without being actively involved. The athletes that we watch soon become our idols, especially for younger sports fanatics, and when something tragic happens to one, we’re left in a haze of sorrow. Join us as we revisit 10 of the saddest, most tragic sports deaths to have occurred in mordern times. Warning! This video may not be suitable for all audiences. Viewer discretion is advised.
Still felt heavily throughout the NASCAR community, the death of Dale Earnhardt occurred on February 18th, 2001 during the Daytona 500 in the 4th turn of the Daytona International Speedway. The race was on its final lap when Sterling Marlin connected with Earnhardt, sending him straight into a wall. Earnhardt’s estimated speed at the time of impact was between 155 to 160 miles or 249 to 257 kilometers per hour. At the Halifax Medical Center, the driver was pronounced dead after sustaining blunt force trauma to his head and a basilar skull fracture. In the wake of his death, investigations led to advanced safety improvements and mandated regulations, such as requiring the use of the head and neck support device, which Earnhardt had refused to wear.
While some may argue his status as an athlete, the level of training wrestler Owen Hart had to endure to succeed at his craft earned him the status of a “sports entertainer.” Just before his match with The Godfather at the Over the Edge pay-per-view event on May 23rd, 1999, Owen Hart, reprising his Blue Blazer personality, was to be lowered into the ring dramatically, only to have to release himself via a quick release mechanism when the harness gets “tangled.” Allegedly, while getting comfortable with the harness, Hart had accidentally triggered the rig and fell 78-feet or roughly 24-meters onto the top rope below. After being transported to Truman Medical Center in Kansas City, Hart was pronounced dead from internal bleeding and blunt force trauma. Speculation among Hart’s widow and fellow wrestlers points to a faulty, dangerous rigging system that Hart wasn’t even comfortable with.
Kevin Ward, Jr.
There is an incredibly important guideline drivers follow when they crash during an event: Wait for race officials before exiting the disabled vehicle. During a 2014 sprint car race in Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York, driver Kevin Ward, Jr. spun out into a wall and found his vehicle unable to continue the race. After the caution flag was waved, Ward exited his vehicle and stepped into the track, pointing his finger and yelling at other drivers. In what was said to be an accident, though Ward’s family believes a hint of intent, despite another driver narrowly missing him, driver Tony Stewart passed too close to the opposing driver and clipped him with his rear right tire. 45-minutes later, Ward was pronounced dead. Through a lengthy controversy, Tony Stewart was cleared of any wrong-doing.
A man so dedicated to his craft that his legacy was his refusal to give up, even as exhaustion threatened his life. During the 1967 Tour de France, the British cyclist sought to keep his lead on the British team throughout the 22-stage race. During the 13th stage, which covered the areas of Marseille, Mont Ventoux, and Carpentras and a 131-mile or 211-kilometer span, an exhausted looking Simpson fought against his body’s will, even at one point falling off his bike. Despite the resistance of his team, Tom got back on his bike and continued riding, only making it another 500 yards or about 560 meters before falling unconscious. Even as spectators helped him to the side of the road and laid him on the ground, his hand was gripped tight around the handlebars. His passing was initially blamed on heat exhaustion, though traces of amphetamine found in his body shined a different light.
In 1983, German driver Stefan Bellof set the record for the fastest lap on the Nordschleife configuration in a Porsche 956. One year later, he claimed the victory at the Drivers’ Championship in the 1984 World Sportscar Championship, also behind the wheel of a Porsche. The following year, the universe decided to shift gears for Bellof and, during the 1985 1,000 km of Spa World Sportscar Championship Race, sent the skilled driver speeding into a wall. After connecting with an opposing driver in an attempt to pass him, Bellof and his opponent’s vehicles spun out into barriers. While his fellow racer, Jacky Ickx, survived and quickly jumped in to help rescue workers with Bellof, the German driver suffered massive internal injuries and was pronounced dead at the track hospital.
Regarded as one of the world’s greatest Formula One drivers, Ayrton Senna’s successful career met an untimely end during the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. There was something ominous about the race. During qualifications the day before, Roland Ratzenberger died in a crash and, at the top of the race, Pedro Lamy and JJ Lehto were involved in a serious-injury wreck. Despite the signs, the race continued until lap 7, when Senna pushed his vehicle to racing speeds of around 190 miles or 307 kilometers per hour. His car careened towards a concrete wall and though Senna could reduce his speed to around 145 miles or 233 kilometers per hour, the impact against the wall caused his right-front wheel to kick back into the cockpit, causing several fatal injuries including a skull fracture and ruptured temporal arteries. An investigation after the crash revealed the steering column may have failed.
In his 1998 bout against Ukranian Yevgeni Zolotarev, mixed martial arts fighter Douglas Dedge became the first known American competitor to die during an MMA fight. During his training, the American fighter was said to have blacked out but was insistent on continuing onto the main event. Despite putting up a solid defense, less than 5 minutes into the fight, Dedge was laid into by his opponent pretty heavily before submitting. After standing from his beating, Dedge immediately fell backward into the mat and started to convulse. The fighter was taken to the Kiev Institute of Surgery where he passed away 2 days later from brain injuries suffered during the fight.
To make it to the Olympics is likely the greatest desire of many athletes and in 2010, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili was among those that made it to the Winter Olympics in Canada. On the day of the opening ceremony, Nodar was on a final training run at the Whistler Sliding Centre when he lost control of his luge on a turn. The rider was thrown off the track where he struck a steel support pole at 89 miles or roughly 143 kilometers per hour. Despite attempts by medical personnel, Nodar succumbed to his injuries at a nearby hospital. Nodar’s death may have been tragic, but Olympic officials did their best to hush the accident and turn attention to the games.
Philadelphia-born college basketball player at Loyola Marymount University, Hank Gathers was on his way to a solid career in the NCAA Division. Prior to his death, Gathers had been suffering from side effects of an abnormal heartbeat, which threatened frequent and dangerous arrhythmia. On May 4th, 1990, Gathers collapsed on the court just seconds after making an alley-oop. In front of thousands of spectators and a few close family members - including his mother - Hank struggled to get back to his feet, and sadly, would lay down and pass away. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was later pronounced dead. His autopsy later revealed that, for at least 8 hours prior to his death, Gathers did not take his heart medication.
Aboard the USS Intrepid in New York City, Beethavean Scottland and George Khalid Jones squared off during an ESPN2 telecast that would prove to be Scottland’s final feat. The outmatched Scottland squared off against his larger opponent without hesitation and was persistent in continuing the match, despite taking near 100 punches by the 5th round and concerned observations from commentator Max Kellerman. Up until the last 45 seconds of the bout, Scottland remained on his feet, but Jones was adamant about dropping his opponent. With a hard left / right combo, Scottland was dropped to the canvas, never to stand again. The tenacious fighter fell into a coma and died from his injuries days later.