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Meditation 254
Athletes Dying Young: Causes and Blame

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Back in the spring of 1963, just before graduation from sixth form,[1] my training partner and I were entered by our coach in a one mile city championship race at The Butts in Coventry. I wasn't a great runner; on a good day I might break 5 minutes for the mile by a second or two, and Jack was usually ahead of me in any race under 2 miles. For some reason on that particular day, I ran the race of my life, taking the lead on the first lap and never relinquishing it, finishing in 4:40. I looked back for Jack expecting him to be close behind me, but he wasn't among the runners who crossed the line behind me. He was lying in the infield half a lap behind, and he never got up.

Jack was a better athlete than me, also a better scholar, better looking, and had a better personality, He had a sparkling future ahead of him, and that future collapsed with him on that track.

It was a tragedy and you might ask why this had to happen. It's a normal question to ask when someone so young and promising dies suddenly. In Jack's case, it was a fast-acting viral pneumonia of which he was unaware. The exertion of the race exacerbated it, but there was a good chance that even without running, he would have died that night.

You can push the "why" on endlessly, but I find it rather pointless. That virus is the answer.

In late 1986, I attempted the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington. It was one of my worst marathon experiences, as my deteriorating knees forced me to quit after about 17 miles. A real disappointment as my training had led me to believe I might break 3 hours. A few miles before I was forced to retire, I passed some medics working on a fallen runner. And he was not destined to get up and run another race.

It was a tragedy and you might ask why this had to happen. It turned out he was a young Marine Corps sergeant, apparently in the best of health, with an undiagnosed heart ailment.

Again you might want pursue the "why" and ask why a young soldier with a good future might die in this way. But still the answer is heart failure.

Last week, a young football player died in a training session at a Calgary high school. It was just a normal drill for linesmen, offensive line up against the defensive line. Apparently the injuries were consistent with a second impact, which can occur very easily when butting heads and bodies on the line.

And this too was a tragedy and you might ask why this had to happen. Unfortunately, the nature of contact sports is that crippling injuries and deaths do occur, fortunately relatively rarely. But the risk is inherent in the activity.

But that's not good enough an answer for some. Here's what his coach had to say[2] at the young man's funeral:

"Still people shake their heads and ask 'Why'd he have to die?'
The answer is, his plan from God is to play football in the sky."[3]

Naturally the death of a young athlete seems incomprehensible and pointless, but how does it improve things to point the finger at the arbitrary whim of a capricious deity? How can this provide comfort to anyone?

Some people do die young in sports. Some people die young in other areas of life. It is unfortunate. It is tragic, particularly for family and friends. But there is always an immediate cause. The desire of a god to stock his heavenly sports teams need not be considered as one of the causative factors. Whether you believe in a god or not, there is no need to blame him for the untimely deaths of the young



  1. Equivalent to high school graduation.
  2. Calgary Herald, 12 September 2004.
  3. It rhymes, it almost scans, but, if you want poetry, AE Houseman handled the death of a young athlete much better without finding it necessary to bring God into it.