Riots, fires, falls, and freak accidents; they’ve all happened over the decades in the world of sports. When tragedy strikes the sports realm, it’s a harsh reminder that these athletes we so strongly cherish are really just human beings. Human beings that are playing a game at the end of the day.
When it comes to death in sports, the silver lining is that fallen athletes died doing what they love. But death isn’t the only kind of tragedy that occurs in sports. Throughout history, there have been freak accidents, bombings, stadium collapses, and more.
Here are some of the most noteworthy tragedies in sports history.
1923: Jockey Dies While on Horse
June 4, 1923, was his dying day for 35-year-old jockey Frank Hayes, who had been training horses for years but was about to attempt his second-ever race. The race was at Belmont Park and both he and his horse, Sweet Kiss, had never raced there before.
In preparation for the race, Hayes needed to lose a lot of weight in a hurry (he went from 142 pounds to 130). The race was going well and Hayes and Sweet Kiss were up with the frontrunners for most of the event. Onlookers assumed Hayes was showing off as he rode with only one hand and was visibly slumped over as they crossed the finish line and won the race.
The Sweet Kiss of Death
As track officials came to greet Hayes and his champion horse, the jockey slid off the horse and into the dirt. Hayes had died sometime during the race, most likely of a heart attack, yet his body had somehow remained in the saddle throughout all the jumps.
It was speculated that his death was caused by the rapid weight loss and the sheer excitement combined. Hayes remains the only jockey to ever win a race while dead. As for Sweet Kiss, he never raced again as no jockey was brave enough to ride the horse that was eventually dubbed “The Sweet Kiss of Death.”
1998: A Soccer Team Killed by Lightning
In October 1998, a match played in the Democratic Republic of Congo between Bena Tshadi and Basanga was suddenly interrupted by a strike of lightning. The game was tied 1-1 when lightning struck the field. 11 players on Bena Tshadi, ages 20 to 35, were killed instantly.
30 others, from the same team as well as spectators on the sidelines, were burned by the lightning. Miraculously, the entire Basanga team was left untouched by the lightning. Yes, it’s as shocking and awful as they come – an incident that’s hard to explain. Well, the superstitious had an explanation.
It Was Witchcraft, They Said
Many accused Basanga of witchcraft. In this case, the fact that the entire Basanga team was left unharmed made it look suspicious, and was enough to make the accusation. According to the Congolese Press Agency, sorcery happens to be a common tactic used by central and western African teams to influence games.
Many teams actually hire witch doctors to curse their opposing teams. The truth is lightning strikes on open soccer fields aren’t so rare. That same weekend, six soccer players were injured in another game when lightning struck in South Africa.
2010: Death on the Olympic Luge
It happened during a training run on the day of the Opening Ceremonies at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. 21-year-old Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luger from Georgia, crashed and hit a metal pole. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
What makes it even gloomier is that the young athlete had told his father that he was afraid of the tournament’s track. His father, an experienced luger himself, told him to start his run further down the course, in order to slow his speed. Kumaritashvili rejected the idea, saying he came to the Olympics “to win.” He added: “I will either win or die.”
It Was His Fault, They Said
That day, he was going over 90 miles per hour when he crashed. His head and torso sustained massive injuries. The late athlete had been competing on the luge since he was 14 and had never sustained an injury. Yet the Olympic’s organizers blamed the accident on Kumaritashvili’s inexperience.
Nonetheless, the track was adjusted after the accident to make it safer in time for the 2014 Olympics. And still, organizers claimed the changes were simply done to soothe the athlete’s fears. Before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the International Olympic Committee was criticized for making the games more dramatic and dangerous.
1989: The Hillsborough Stadium Disaster
It took 30 years for those responsible for the stadium disaster to finally face the charges they avoided for three decades. After 95 Liverpool supporters were killed at the Hillsborough Stadium South Yorkshire, prosecutors filed charges against six people connected to the incident.
It happened on April 15, 1989, when Liverpool and Nottingham Forest battled in an FA Cup semifinal. When too many Liverpool fans were trudging going through the gates into the stadium, the police opened an exit gate and directed herds of people down a tunnel and into two standing-room-only enclosures.
Cops Didn’t Rush to Save Those Suffocating
It took minutes for the crush to happen. Fans toward the back kept moving forward and more bodies were pushed up against the fence. The situation went from really bad to catastrophic very quickly. People cried for help, screams were heard, but police were slow to respond.
They were conditioned to maintain public order rather than public safety. By the time the game was halted – at five and a half minutes in – it was too late. 95 people died, mostly from suffocation. (A 96th victim died in 1993 after years in a coma.)
It’s the Fans’ Fault, They Said
There were also 766 injured survivors. Both “dead and injured fans lay strewn across the field,” TIME reported. After the incident, Football Association officials entered into a full investigation. It was easy to blame the fans (police, politicians, and members of the media sure did), saying they were drunk and disorderly.
But this was utter bullsh*t in the eyes of the families and friends of the victims. Trevor Hicks, who got separated from his two teenage daughters at the game, found them lying side by side on the pitch. “We lost all our family,” he mourned.
Charges of Manslaughter and Changes to the Stadium
Multiple investigations over the years suggested the fans’ behavior was not to blame, rather a series of decisions made by the police. The most serious criminal allegation was against David Duckenfield, the match commander that day, who was charged with manslaughter.
Other than the criminal charges, changes have been made in the league. There are no longer standing-room-only areas. Instead, stadiums offer full seating, so the action is more tamed, and crushes are prevented. TIME wrote, “the Premier League’s swish arenas stand as the disaster’s most powerful legacy.”
2014: Soccer Player Killed by Fans
On August 23, 2014, 24-year-old Albert Ebosse Bodjongo of the Algerian soccer club JS Kabylie was playing with his team at a home game against another Algerian team, USM Alger. He scored the only point for his team in the game that lost 2-1.
Then, as he and his home team ran off the field, they were showered with falling objects from the fans in the bleachers. These objects included roof tiles from a nearby construction site. Chaos ensued. It didn’t take long for Bodjongo to get struck in the head.
Second Autopsy Reveals Murder
He was hit in the head with something heavy enough to crack his skull and get pieces stuck into his brain. At first, it was believed that he died by a heavy, sharp object thrown by fans. But the truth was worse. When his family hired a pathologist to conduct a second autopsy, it was found that the head injury was delivered at a much closer range; not from the stands.
The soccer player had a stab wound near his collarbone and other wounds. It is possible that Bodjongo was attacked and murdered in the locker room. The murder was never solved.
1920: Baseball Player Killed by a Pitch
Cleveland Indians’ Ray Chapman was a fan favorite and one of the fastest players in the game during his career. In August 1920, the 28-year-old shortstop was actually planning to retire from baseball with plans to spend more time with his wife. He just hoped to win the World Series first.
In the fifth inning of an August 16 game against the New York Yankees, Chapman got hit in the head by a pitch at the hands of Yankees pitcher Carl Mays. Chapman went unconscious, came to, and tried to walk off the field.
The Reason They Banned the Spitball
He collapsed shortly after and was carried to a hospital where he died the following day. Although he wasn’t around to see it, the Indians went on to win their first World Series that fall. Of the tens of millions of pitches that have been thrown in the history of Major League Baseball, this was the only one that took someone’s life.
This was at a time when helmets were not worn in the game. It took decades for batting helmets to become mandatory gear in the game. Because of Chapman’s death, the baseball league decided to ban the spitball – the kind of pitch that killed him.
1988: the Fall of Owen Hart
Owen Hart was the youngest of 12 kids in the legendary Hart family. They were considered Canada’s first family of wrestling; six brothers and four brothers-in-law trained in The Dungeon of father Stu Hart’s basement.
Hart joined the WWE in 1988 and wrestled under different gimmicks, including teaming up with his brother Bret “The Hitman” Hart. On May 23, 1999, during the Over the Edge pay-per-view event, Hart, who was supposed to be lowered to the ring from the ceiling, fell. The mechanism on his harness disengaged early he dropped 90 feet to his death.
1971: The Ibrox Stadium Collapses
Thousands of soccer fans will forever have the image of buckled railings on Stairway 13 at Scotland’s Ibrox embedded in their memory, at least those who were around in the 1970s. On January 2, 1971, right after a Rangers – Celtic match with over 80,000 fans in the bleachers, the stairway collapsed.
As the steel barriers gave way, 66 people were crushed to their deaths, leading the stairway to be dubbed “Stairway to Hell.” According to a 2010 report, the stadium was a “recipe for disaster.” The staircases were dizzyingly high and “emptied thousands from the terracing.”
It Caved in Like a Pack of Cards
The who truth and nothing but the truth never really emerged about what caused the disaster. One eyewitness, however, said the crowd “just caved in like a pack of cards, it was as if all of them were falling into a huge hole.”
Officials were accused of being complacent seeing as how people died the same way on the same stairway a decade earlier, in 1961. And yet nothing was addressed until the 1971 tragedy. Back in 1902, Ibrox saw another disaster: during an England-Scotland match, a stand collapsed killing 25 people, with hundreds more injured.
2012: Skier Dies in Training Accident
Winter sports are evidently one of the more dangerous ones. Canadian freestyle skier Sarah Burke was a four-time Winter X Games gold medalist and winner of the 2005 World Championships in the halfpipe. She knew what she was doing, and never expected that a training day while preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics would be her last.
During a January 10, 2012, training run, she fell and ruptured her vertebral artery. She died on nine days later, at the age of 29. In September of that year, Burke was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.
2013: The Bombing at the Boston Marathon
One of the more recent and tragic sporting events was the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Three bombs had been set off near the finish line, leading over 170 people to get injured and three people to lose their lives, including an eight-year-old child.
Two of the bombs were homemade pressure-cooker devices, and a third was detonated by the police. The chaos that ensued after the bombings were just as deadly. The suspects, Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, killed a cop, kidnapped a man and had a shoot-out that killed another cop.
A Coward Hiding in a Boat
Tamerlan ended up dying in the mess while his brother Dzhokhar was later found hiding in a boat in someone’s backyard. He claimed that they were motivated by extremist Islam and in 2015 was sentenced to death by a jury.
After the bombing, the whole sports world came together to honor the victims and heroes from that day. Boston Red Sox’s slugger David Ortiz delivered a passionate speech at Fenway Park. And fans of the New York Red Bulls and New England Revolution chanted together before a match held in Harrison, New Jersey.
2011: Hockey Team Disappears into Thin Air
On September 7, 2011, the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl Russian hockey team was traveling by air to Belarus for a match. At the time, Lokomotiv was one of the country’s top ice hockey teams. The charter plane, YAK-Service Flight 9633, accelerated to 140 mph but failed to take off.
The aircraft struck an antenna 20 feet above the ground, with the plane veering to the left and crashing on the banks of the Tunoshonka River, which was 1.2 miles from the runway. Of the 45 passengers and crew, there was one sole survivor.
Drugs, Falsified Documents and Improper Training
Eyewitnesses gave accounts of seeing the plane burst into flames as soon as it hit the antenna. They also said the engines went out shortly before the impact. After an in-depth investigation, it was reported that pilot error was to blame.
Yak-Service apparently failed to train its crews properly and that this specific crew failed to calculate the takeoff parameters correctly. In addition, one of the pilots was increasing thrust while the other hit the brakes. Oh, and the co-pilot had phenobarbital, a (banned) seizure drug, in his system. And another thing: both pilots falsified documents stating they did the required training on the aircraft.
1955: Le Mans Racing Disaster
On June 11, 1955, a racing disaster in Le Mans, France, led to a ban on racing in several nations. Why? Because during the 24-hour race, one car lost control and crashed into the stands filled with spectators, killing 82 people. Just like that.
The Le Mans race was first held in 1923 and has been held nearly every June. The race lasts for 24 hours over a 13-kilometer course. Racecar driver Pierre Levegh was invited to join the Mercedes-Benz team, and their 300SLR was to be given a new innovation: an air brake that would enhance cornering. This proved to be a bad idea.
Fans Dying in the Fire as the Race Continues
Before the race, Levegh complained that the track was too narrow at the pit-stop area and the grandstand. It was an observation that proved prophetic as it was exactly why the tragedy later occurred. As he approached the pit-stop area, he swerved to avoid a fellow racer.
His car was going about 150 miles per hour, catapulting the car upward and into the grandstand. Its exploding parts went straight into the crowd. Levegh and 81 spectators lost their lives in that moment. Despite the horror, the race continued.
1970: Marshall University Air Disaster
On November 14, 1970, Southern Airways DC-9 brought down an entire football team when it crashed at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 souls on board were killed instantly, including the Thundering Herd football team and coaching staff.
The town of Marshall was so devastated that the Associated Press’ headline read: “This town died today.” At the time of the crash, a crowd at the airport had been waiting for the plane to land. “Their gaze turned to horror when the jet disappeared behind a hill, followed by a brilliant blast and a mushroom of black smoke,” the report read.
Cartwheeling Into the Hillside
The plane brushed the treetops on the rainy day that sent the “jetliner cartwheeling into a hillside.” If it hadn’t been for the trees, the pilot probably would have made it. “It was that close.” The plane crashed two miles from of the runway, after flipping upside down and bursting into flames.
The plane was lower than it should have been, but investigators don’t know why. The airport had no landing assistance radar and there were no warning lights at the top of the ridge, according to The Associated Press story.
They Are Marshall
The chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, John Reed, said the accident was “one of the greatest tragedies in the annals of aviation history in our country.” The event was adapted into the 2006 movie We Are Marshall, starring Matthew McConaughey as football coach Jack Lengyel who came to rebuild the team.
In 2020, Marshall honored 39 students who were on the plane by awarding them posthumous degrees. In addition to the players and coaching staff, three physicians and their wives, a former president of Marshall’s alumni association, a city councilman, and two past presidents of the Marshall athletic boosters club, died in the crash.
1972: The Andes Flight Crash
On October 13, 1972, a flight carrying a well-known rugby union team, the Old Christians, landed 3,600 meters above ground in the Andes mountains of South America. 16 men survived to tell their tale after over two months in the freezing wilderness, which became one of the most dramatic survival stories ever told.
The Uruguayan Air Force plane (the Fairchild Hiller FH-227B) was carrying the team from their base in Montevideo, Uruguay to Santiago, Chile. Due to bad weather, the plane was forced to land in an Argentinian airfield and spend one night there.
A Disastrous Plan Ends in Failure
The captain told the 45 passengers that making a direct flight across the Andes’ highest peaks would be impossible. What they would do instead is head south, going parallel to the mountains, until it reached a pass that would take it out of the dangerous area.
The plan failed epically. This was still in the age where piloting was done mostly by hand, where steering the plane to safety was a matter of life or death. Because the mountain peaks were covered in low-lying clouds, the result was deadly.
Crashing into the Glacier of Tears
As the plane neared the Chilean border, they passed over a remote area, and the plane’s wing hit a peak and broke it off completely. With only one wing, the aircraft swung around and quickly lost the other wing into the mountains.
The body of the plane plummeted like a stone, smashed into the side of a mountain and finally came to blasting halt in a snowbank. That mountain was later be named the Glacier of Tears. Of the 45 passengers, 12 were killed on impact. The snowbank proved to be both a blessing and a curse.
Survival of the Fittest
It didn’t take long for the cold to kill off the most seriously injured, including the only doctor. Most of the survivors were wounded and there was hardly any food or equipment. Chances of survival seemed slim, but these hardy and intelligent individuals stayed hopeful.
Two of them were medical students who used the wreckage to construct makeshift splints for the broken limbs. Other parts were salvaged to make goggles to prevent snow blindness. Although the disappearance of the plane was noticed, the sheer fact that it was white against snow made it impossible to spot from above.
To Succumb to Cannibalism or Not?
The group huddled around a radio, praying for any news and trying to stay warm. After eight days, they heard the search was abandoned. One of the young rugby players, Gustavo Nicholich, declared “we’re going to get out of here on our own.”
They had little food with them, and so the elephant in the room became whether or not they would take the life-changing step of eating the corpses from the crash. Eventually, desperation made the decision for them. Devout Catholics, they rationalized the act by comparing it to the ritual of transubstantiation. Unthinkable or not, it kept the 16 men alive.
A Trek to Save Their Lives
Eventually, the group decided a few of them were going to need to venture out alone and look for help. The few men headed east towards Argentina, where they found the plane’s tail with luggage containing chocolates, rum, cigarettes, clothes, comic books, and some medicine.
The three athletes, Roberto Canessa, Nando Parrado, and “Tintin” Vintinzin, described their first night in their improvised sleeping bags as the worst night of their lives. After three daunting days, they reached the peak and saw green lands beyond. Nine days into their trek, Canessa spotted a man on horseback across the river.
The End of the Nightmare
There happened to be three horsemen and one promised the rugby players that he would come back the next morning. When the horsemen returned, they gave threw across the river some bread, paper, and a pen. Parrado wrote down the situation, tied the paper to a rock and tossed it across the water.
The first horseman galloped back west for miles until he reached a police station and excitedly told them about the crash survivors. Parrado later joined the rescue team into the helicopter and guided them to his friends. They were all treated in hospital for hypothermia and lived to tell their tales.
1999: Payne Stewart’s Tragic End
Golfer Payne Stewart earned 11 PGA Tour victories during his career. At the 1999 US Open, he trained the longest winning putt in history to par the 18th and get the victory. But a few months later, he met his fate aboard a plane.
On October 25, 1999, Stewart boarded a small airplane from Orlando to Texas, and somewhere along the way the plane lost air pressure due to a cabin leak. By the time it crashed, Stewart and five other passengers had already died from a lack of oxygen. He was 42 years old.
2009: Nick Adenhart Killed by a Drunk Driver
Nick Adenhart headed into the 2004 MLB Draft before suffering a shoulder injury that required major surgery. As a result, he was taken as a 14th-round pick by LA’s Angels of Anaheim. He made his way into the Major Leagues and made three starts for the Angels in 2008.
Adenhart started to really make a name for himself and earned a spot in the team’s rotation in 2009. He pitched six scoreless innings at the start of the season. Several hours after later, on April 9, 2009, he was killed by a drunk driver in a car accident. He was only 22.
2003: Dan Snyder Killed in a Car Accident
Canadian NHL player Dan Snyder played 49 games for the Atlanta Thrashers. In October 2003, he was a passenger in a Ferrari that was being driven by friend and teammate, Dany Heatley. At 80 miles per hour, Heatley lost control and crashed into a brick and iron fence.
Snyder fell into a coma, succumbing to his injuries six days later. He was 25. In the end, Heatley was charged with first-degree vehicular homicide as well as reckless driving. However, Snyder’s family didn’t want him to be in prison, and Heatley pleaded guilty to lesser charges. He wound up with three years’ probation.
1986: Len Bias’ Overdose
Len Bias’ played at the University of Maryland which earned him praise as the best basketball player in college’s history. He was even said to have rivaled the talent of Michael Jordan. He was taken second overall by the Boston Celtics in 1986’s draft.
Less than 48 hours after the draft, the young player died in his dorm room from a cocaine overdose. The tragic news led to United States Congress passing the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which brought about harsher punishment for drug-related crimes.
1972: Roberto Clemente’s Plane Crash
Roberto Clemente played for the Pittsburgh Pirates and won the NL batting title four times. As much as he was admired on the field, he was equally praised for his charity work and motivation to make a better life for all Latin Americans.
On New Year’s Eve of 1972, he traveled from Puerto Rico on a small plane to help during the aftermath of an earthquake in Nicaragua. The plane crashed near the coast and the 38-year-old’s body was never found. Clemente was posthumously inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.