x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

The impermanence of it all, be it a sports career or life

Recent days have delivered a bushel of obituaries from the sports universe, one after another. We say goodbye to athletes current and retired.

Wouter Weylandt's death reminded us of the dangers of cycling as a sport.
Wouter Weylandt's death reminded us of the dangers of cycling as a sport.

Outside our own circle of family and friends, the most jarring deaths are athletes'. We see these men and women who are stronger, faster, presumably healthier than us, and we transfer on to them an image of invulnerability.

The ultimate reminder of their mortality seems much harder to bear than, say, an entertainer's or a government leader's.

Recent days have delivered a bushel of obituaries from the sports universe, one after another. We said goodbye to athletes current and retired. Among the active, a few were closer to the dawn than the dusk of their careers. One was struck down in the throes of competition.

Besides their excellence with fun and games, the departed shared something else: most of them were much too young when they left us.

The first to fall had attained rarefied air for any athlete: identifiable by first name. In this case, half of his first name. Severiano "Seve" Ballesteros brought art and verve to the often staid world of golf.

Daring shot-making, particularly in the majors, endeared him to duffers on every continent, and he breathed life into the Ryder Cup as a high-risk, high-reward player and later as crafty coach of the Europeans. Brain cancer took his life at the age of 54 at his home in northern Spain.

Two days later, Wouter Weylandt, the Belgian cyclist, crashed during a high-speed descent at the Giro d'Italia, landed face-first and could not be saved. The accident harshly accentuated the dangers of the sport. Weylandt, 26, left behind his pregnant girlfriend.

The following afternoon, the rising thoroughbred jockey Michael Baze was found lifeless in his car on the backstretch at Churchill Downs just three days after the Kentucky Derby.

Baze, the youngest meet champion at Hollywood Park since Bill Shoemaker six decades ago, was coping with substance abuse issues. No foul play was suspected, pending autopsy reports. Baze, 24, is survived by several jockeys and trainers from his family tree.

That evening, Aaron Douglas attended a party in Florida. The American football player, the son of a former NFL player, was on the radar of pro scouts and ready to enrol at Alabama after transferring from Tennessee. Party-goers found Douglas unresponsive and called police. They were unable to revive him. Douglas was 21.

Hours later, in Puerto Rico, Robert "Tractor" Traylor, the veteran basketball player, was found dead of an apparent heart attack. Traylor had logged seven NBA seasons despite chronic weight problems, which explains the nickname, before taking up with a Puerto Rican team. He was 34.

The next day, Ron Springs, a one-time Dallas Cowboys stand-out, gave up his long, futile fight against the ravages of diabetes. He never emerged from a coma dating to complications during surgery in 2007.

Having lost a foot to amputation, Springs was about to lose a kidney when Everson Walls, his former teammate, sacrificed one of his last year for transplant, drawing welcome attention to organ donation awareness. Springs was 54.

Barely half their age was the NHL player Derek Boogaard, 28, a six-season pro, most recently with the New York Rangers. Boogaard's body was discovered in his Minnesota apartment on Friday. Though a cause of death is undetermined, speculation focused on a concussion sustained by the on-ice enforcer and subsequent headaches that short-circuited his season. Boogaard's family donated his brain for medical research on the effects of head injuries to athletes.

Sammy Wanjiru, winner of the latest Chicago Marathon and favoured to defend his Olympic title next year in London, perished from either jumping or falling out of a bedroom balcony at his home in Kenya. Wanjiru reportedly was estranged from his wife, who also lived there and is not considered a suspect. He was 24, too.

Last night, an American sports legend was also sadly added to the list. Harmon Killebrew, who is 11th on Major League Baseball's all-time home run honour roll, died at his home in Scottsdale, Arizona, after battling esophageal cancer, the Baseball Hall of Fame said in a statement.

The long-time sufferer, 74, had used his celebrity pulpit for years to promote hospice care and extol its assets. His willingness to do so once more is a measure of the man's dignity.

Indeed, good can emerge from these tales of death, whether it is the generosity of others or the willingness of family to allow a loved one's organs to be studied so that others might someday benefit.

Still, the loss of athletes for whom we cheer is unsettling. It reminds us that not only is a typical sports career short, but so is life.