When sporting world loses a young sportstar…

A statue, in Wales, in memory of the late boxer, Johnny Owen.

When a young sportsperson dies unexpectedly, first and foremostly it is a tragedy for the deceased and their loved ones. It also touches the hearts of millions of people. One thinks of Ayrton Senna (34), Ivo Van Damme (22), Duncan Edwards (21), Johnny Owen (24), and so many others whose lives prematurely ended just as the pursuit of their sporting dreams was gathering a beautiful momentum.

The great sportspeople touch our lives in such positive ways. They sprinkle joy and excitement into the lives of people all over the world. When a household name, or any sportstar with a significant profile, dies at a young age – and perhaps at their peak – it leaves a monumental void. In keeping with what it is about sport that appeals so much to us, we often feel robbed by the sudden loss of the further greatness we expected to witness.

Kenyan long-distance runner and current marathon world record holder Kelvin Kiptum (24) died in a tragic accident on Sunday.

Senna was a three-time Formula One champion by the time of his tragic death in 1994, when the Brazilian superstar crashed into a barrier while leading the San Marino Grand Prix. When 23 people lost their lives in the Munich air disaster in 1958, Duncan Edwards was the most famous of the eight Manchester United players who died. Those of us who never saw him play have been left in no doubt by those who did… that Edwards was destined to become one of the greatest footballers of all time. Superstars like the late Bobby Charlton spoke in awe of England’s lost footballing prince.

Johnny Owen never reached the top of his sport, and his name won’t register with most readers of this column. But I thought of him this week when the awful news broke of the death (at the age of 24) of marathon world record holder Kelvin Kiptum.

Poor Johnny Owen. One November day in 1980 I happened to tune into an early evening magazine-type news programme (similar to The One Show now) on one of the English TV channels. A segment featuring a young boxing hopeful, Johnny Owen, caught my attention. This was a classic underdog tale. Owen, a fragile looking young Welsh boxer, had surprisingly secured a tilt at the WBC world bantamweight title, though the programme left viewers in little doubt about the extent to which he was a long shot. It would be by far the biggest fight of his young life.

Watching the very likeable young man shyly respond to the reporter’s questions, it was impossible not to immediately root for this largely unknown underdog. Very slight of frame, nervous, humble, respectful, Johnny Owen endeared himself to TV viewers that night. In truth, I remember thinking he had the look of a man who did not believe he could win. Nobody could have foreseen the tragic postscript to what had started out as a heartwarming story, a celebration of the human spirit. The fight took place in Los Angeles the following evening (the interview with Owen had been recorded). The young Welsh man had a torrid night. Knocked down three times, a pounding which he resisted with incredible courage. Sadly, Johnny Owen left the ring on a stretcher. Tragically, he never regained consciousness. Seven weeks after the fight, he died in a Los Angeles hospital. I remember thinking how heartbreaking it was that he had left his native Wales to follow his dreams, never to return. He never became world champion, but Johnny Owen was a hero.

Ivo Van Damme was a brilliant middle-distance runner during a golden era in athletics. He had many great races with one of my all-time sporting heroes, Eamonn Coghlan. Van Damme died in a car accident in 1976, aged just 22. A young boy in Rooskey at the time, I was stunned. Young sportstars in their prime weren’t meant to die.

Of course, just as destiny tends not to distinguish between rich and poor, it has little regard for distinguishing between the famous and the rest, or for that matter between the supremely gifted and the… well, not quite as gifted. There have been many more top sportspeople who sadly died much too young.

These recollections are prompted by the tragic death last Sunday of Kelvin Kiptum, the Kenyan long-distance runner who was the marathon world record holder at the time of his passing. Just 24 (the same age as Johnny Owen), he died in a car crash which also claimed the life of his coach, Gervais Hakizimana. It is only natural that sports fans will think of the now never-to-be-witnessed great feats that Kiptum would have thrilled the world with, not least at the upcoming Paris Olympics. The light of his young life amongst us may have faded, but the eternal glow born of his greatness will live on, and it will inspire current and future generations.