Leading sporting deaths of 2023

People lay tributes and flowers at the base of the ‘United Trinity’ sculpture, depicting former Manchester United players Bobby Charlton, George Best and Denis Law, outside of Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, central England, on October 21, 2023. – England World Cup winner and Manchester United great Bobby Charlton, described by the club as a “giant of the game”, has died at the age of 86, it was announced on Saturday. File photo

As sportsmen and women set their goals for 2024, others who achieved theirs in the past died. AFP Sports highlights some of those whose stars were extinguished in 2023:


Elena Fanchini

Classy Italian skier who won world downhill silver in 2005 and two World Cup races in the discipline — almost 10 years apart — died on February 9 aged 37.

She was first diagnosed with cancer in 2018, which obliged her to miss what would have been a fourth Olympic Games. US superstar Mikaela Shiffrin said “she would never be forgotten.”


Tori Bowie

Bowie went from the glory of being crowned women’s 100 metres world champion in 2017 in London to fading from sight. So much so, it took days for local authorities to check on her and find her dead aged just 32 in late April at her home in Florida, due to complications related to childbirth.

Bowie — who won Olympic 4x100m relay gold in 2016 to add to a bronze in the 100m and silver in the 200m — had fought her way to the top inspired by her grandmother, Bobbie Smith, who brought up her and her younger sister.

“We didn’t have much but she gave us character,” said Bowie, who shortened her first name from the unusual Fentorish.

Her death rattled many with US track superstar Noah Lyles declaring: “This breaks my heart.”

Dick Fosbury

The man who revolutionised the high jump died aged 76 of lymphoma on March 12.

“The word legend is probably used too often,” US athletics icon Michael Johnson posted on X, formerly Twitter. “Dick Fosbury was a true LEGEND!”

Johnson was spot-on with his analysis for the lad from Portland who began experimenting on how to tackle the high jump aged just 16.

He ended up with a strategy immortalised as the “Fosbury Flop” and remains to this day the standard technique used by elite high jumpers.

Instead of tackling the bar head on, the 6ft 4in Fosbury would arc towards the bar on his run-up before taking off backwards and “flopping” over the bar.

The technique was rewarded with Olympic gold in Mexico in 1968.

“He literally turned his event upside down,” said former US high jump coach John Tansley in 1980.

Greg Foster

The three-time 110m hurdles world champion died aged 64 on February 19, a month afer undergoing a heart transplant.

A titan of the discipline in a golden era for the US as he and Roger Kingdom dominated the major championships, Foster won three successive world crowns from 1983 to 1991.

Olympic glory eluded him, however, as Kingdom won that title twice in 1984 and 1988 with Foster having to be content with a silver behind his compatriot in Los Angleles in 1984 when he fatally hesitated at the gun.

Foster was relatively chilled about missing out on Olympic gold.

“To be second best in something is a lot more than people think,” Foster said.

“How many people can say they were second best in the world at something very difficult?”


Hobie Landrith

A catcher who was the first player to be drafted by new franchise the New York Mets in 1961 died aged 93 on March 30.

His move to the Mets after spells at several other teams hung in the balance as Landrith rejected the offer of $75,000 as insufficient.

The Mets played hard ball and Landrith finally signed the contract at the third time of asking — but he barely lasted a season before being traded to the Baltimore Orioles.

Short of stature but blessed with a quick wit he was hit twice by batters shortly after joining the Mets.

“I’m three inches shorter than when I reported to camp,” he quipped to the New York Daily News.

Vida Blue

Stunning young talented pitcher who led the Oakland A’s — or the ‘Swingin A’s’ as they were nicknamed at the time — to three successive World Series triumphs, died aged 73 on May 26 due to complications from cancer.

The youngest MVP in MLB history when he won the award aged 22 in 1971, his career nosedived after the glory years of the 1972-74 World Series crowns largely due to drug use which earned him prison time.

He also had alcohol problems in later life but blamed his drugs history for never making the Hall of Fame.

“I had some issues in my life that might have had a tendency to sway voting. There are some guys in the Hall of Fame who don’t have halos,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.


Bishan Bedi

Indian cricketing hero who was part of the famous spin quartet of Erapalli Prasanna, Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar died on October 23 aged 77 after a long illness.

Left-arm spinner Bedi claimed 266 wickets in 67 Tests in an illustrious international career between 1967 and 1979.

He went on to become coach of the national side with a young Sachin Tendulkar beginning his extraordinary international career.

“To Bishan Paaji (elder brother), I wasn’t just another cricketer; I was like a son. Under his nurturing guidance, I scored my first 100 in England,” Tendulkar wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

“The world seems a little emptier without you, Paaji.”

Heath Streak

One of Zimbabwe’s greatest cricketers who took 236 Test wickets — no other Zimbabwean bowler has taken more than 80 — died of cancer aged 49 on September 3.

His career had ended in ignominy when he received an eight-year ban from the International Cricket Council (ICC) for passing on information and contact details of players to an unnamed Indian man — Streak though denied he had been involved in match-fixing.

Streak was an outstanding fast bowler and capable batsman. He was a key member of Zimbabwe teams that were competitive against cricket’s bigger nations in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

He showed the same fight as he battled liver and colon cancers and had to rebut claims he had died earlier in the year.

“RIP Streaky. You were a titan,” former teammate Henry Olonga posted on Facebook.


Bobby Charlton

One of English football’s all-time greats and one of the last of the only England side to lift the World Cup died aged 86 after an accidental fall at a care home on October 21.

The Manchester United legend had been diagnosed with dementia — just as his late brother and fellow 1966 World Cup winner Jack had been — in 2020.

A survivor of the 1958 Munich air crash which killed eight of his team-mates, Charlton helped United win two league titles and their first European Cup in 1968.

Alex Ferguson — who was Charlton’s pick to be United manager in 1986 — said he “was the greatest English player of all time”.

“My dad used to say that humility in success is a sign of greatness, and that was Bobby,” said Ferguson.

Christian Atsu

The 31-year-old Ghanaian international died on February 6, one of over 44,000 victims of the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria.

The 2015 Africa Cup of Nations player of the tournament, who had played for Porto and Newcastle, had been due to fly out hours before the earthquake struck but had stayed after scoring the winner for his Turkish club Hatayspor.

The 65-times capped star’s funeral was attended by Ghana’s vice-president.

“Ghana football has lost one of its finest personnel and ambassadors, one who will be difficult to replace. He’ll be sorely missed,” Ghana president Nana Akufo-Addo said.

Gianluca Vialli

The Italian great who played an integral role assisting then head coach Roberto Mancini in leading his country to the European Championship crown in 2021 died aged 58 of pancreatic cancer on January 6.

He made his name as a player at Sampdoria alongside Mancini, winning the Serie A title and European Cup Winners’ Cup before joining Juventus in 1992 for a then world record 16.5 million euros.

Vialli won the Champions League with Juventus and was also a pivotal member of the Italy side that reached the 1990 World Cup semi-finals.

He became Chelsea player-manager in 1998 leading them to victory in the League Cup, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and UEFA Super Cup.

He also guided Chelsea to victory in the 2000 FA Cup final.

“We have come a long way together, growing and searching, winning and dreaming. You came as a boy, we salute you as a man,” Genoa-based Sampdoria said.

Terry Venables

The charismatic former England, Tottenham and Barcelona boss died aged 80 on November 26 after a long illness.

Regarded as one of England’s best managers, he guided the Euro 96 hosts to the semi-finals — where they lost on penalties to eventual winners Germany.

He also coached Barcelona to the 1986 European Cup final and won the 1991 FA Cup with Tottenham.

Venables’ vibrant personality and love of attacking football established him as a firm favourite with players and fans alike.

“The best, most innovative coach that I had the privilege and pleasure of playing for,” said Gary Lineker, who played under him at Barcelona and Spurs.

For Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, who was a youngster at the Barcelona academy when Venables was manager, it was not only his skillset as a coach but his character that stood out.

“He was so funny, singing Frank Sinatra on Catalan shows. He was a proper, proper man,” said Guardiola.


Betsy Rawls

Women’s golf legend who won the US Open four times died on October 21 aged 95. In all she won 55 LPGA tournaments with her US Open triumphs coming in 1951, ’53, ’57 and ’60.

She had intended on pursuing a career as a physicist but took the sporting option when she realised she was rather good at the game.

“I became good pretty quickly, got hooked on golf, and won some amateur tournaments,” Rawls said.

“But I had every intention of being a physicist. I played golf for fun and never considered turning professional. Then I decided it would be more fun to be in golf than physics.”


Adam Johnson

The former Pittsburgh Penguins player died aged 29 on October 28 due to loss of blood after being hit in the neck by an opposition player’s skate whilst playing for the Nottingham Panthers against Sheffield Steelers.

“Adam, our number 47, was not only an outstanding ice hockey player, but also a great teammate and an incredible person with his whole life ahead of him,” the Panthers said.

As a result of his death a man was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter while the sport’s governing body the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) said neck guards would be compulsory at events including the Olympics and the men’s and women’s world championships.


David Duckham

The dashing hyper-talented England wing who had misfortune to play in a mediocre national side died aged 76 on January 9 of a heart-related illness.

He was a one-club man with Coventry who scored 10 tries in 36 Tests for England — beginning in the centre but switched to the wing.

Sadly his twinkle-toed brilliance was unable to lift England out of the doldrums as they finished with the wooden spoon in the then Five Nations in four of the seven tournaments in which he played.

However, he enjoyed greater success on the historic British and Irish Lions series win in New Zealand in 1971 and played a leading role in the epic Barbarians win over the All Blacks at Cardiff Arms Park in 1973 — earning the nickname ‘Dai’ from Welsh fans.

Bernard Lapasset

Engaging, urbane and highly effective administrator first as President of the French Rugby Federation (1991-2008) and then chairman of the International Rugby Board (2008-16), now World Rugby, died aged 75 on May 2 after a long illness.

He had the Midas touch when it came to lobbying with France hosting the 2007 Rugby World Cup and securing Sevens a spot in the Olympics. Lapasset was also the driving force behind Paris being awarded the 2024 Summer Olympics.

“Bernard Lapasset was an extraordinary sports leader. Epicurean, altruistic and benevolent, I appreciate how lucky I was to grow up alongside him. His passing is a huge loss,” said Paris Games chief organiser Tony Estanguet.

Syd Millar

Millar was Lapasset’s predecessor as IRB Chairman but his finest achievement was coaching the British and Irish Lions squad to the 1974 series win over South Africa. He died on December 10 aged 89.

A classy prop in his playing days for Ulster and Ireland — he was capped 37 times — he also played nine Tests for the Lions.

He managed Ireland at the inaugural World Cup and was also President of the Irish Rugby Football Union before becoming IRB chairman in 2003.

He was a genial if tough chairman and his stare remained as uncompromising as in his playing days.

“Sometimes Syd only had to look at you with those eyes to know that he meant business,” Jim Stokes, who played for an opposing team, recalled to The Times.

Hannes Strydom

The second row forward in South Africa’s memorable 1995 Rugby World Cup victory on home soil over New Zealand was killed in a car crash aged 58 on November 19.

Strydom won 21 caps for South Africa between 1993 and 1997 and played all of his club rugby in South Africa.

“He was a hard-working forward who never shied away from getting stuck in and doing the dirty work,” said South African Rugby president Mark Alexander.

Strydom, who became a pharmacist after retiring, is the fifth player from the 1995 team to have died after flanker Ruben Kruger, scrum-half Joost van der Westhuizen, and wingers Chester Williams and James Small.


Craig Breen

Irish driver who competed in the World Rally Championship died aged 33 when his Hyundai crashed in testing for the Rally of Croatia on April 23.

Popular with his rivals, Breen finished on the podium in nine of the 82 WRC rallies he contested and won 35 stages.

His team decorated their cars with the Irish flag for the Rally of Croatia in tribute to him.

“It’s empty inside and it’s eating us alive. It’s tough, but I promised to give a smile to Jackie (Craig Breen’s mother),” said 2019 world champion Ott Tanak, who drives for Ford.


Jim Brown

The legendary Cleveland Browns running back, who was one of the NFL’s most prolific players and a civil rights icon, died aged 87 on May 18.

Brown was named the greatest football player ever by the Sporting News in 2002, named to the Pro Bowl every season he played and led Cleveland to the NFL championship game three times, winning the title in 1964.

However, he abruptly ended his career when he was filming the iconic war movie “The Dirty Dozen” and turned his attention to the civil rights movement.

“During his nine-year NFL career, which coincided with the civil rights movement here at home, he became a forerunner and role model for athletes being involved in social initiatives outside their sport. He inspired fellow athletes to make a difference, especially in the communities in which they lived,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said.


John Devitt

Two-time Olympic swimming gold medallist — though his 1960 win in Rome was in controversial circumstances — died on August 17 aged 86.

Devitt was deemed the winner of the 100m freestyle gold despite timing slower than the American Lance Larson — the timekeepers were overruled by the head judge.

The Americans lost an appeal but it proved the catalyst for electric touchpads to be introduced to prevent further incidents.

“All I did was swim,” said Devitt, who was to win 4x200m relay gold four years later and a silver in the 100m freestyle.

“He (Larsen) took it badly. But he can’t be crooked on me. I don’t know who won, and Larsen can’t know either.”

Pat McCormick

American diving legend who swept the women’s medals at two successive Olympics died on March 7 aged 92.

Fearless from a young age, she would dive off the Los Alamitos Bridge though her early efforts from another bridge resulted in the police being called and a week-long ban from going to the beach.

She took both Olympic golds in the 1952 Games and then repeated it in 1956 — five months after giving birth to her first child.

Her daughter Kelly went on to win a silver and bronze Olympic medal in diving.

McCormick’s daredevil spirit led to her climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, travelling down the Amazon and obtaining a pilot’s license.

“Her life was so wonderful,” her son Tim McCormick said. “She was quite a spitfire. She lived her life to the fullest her way.”

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