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The year in focus: Sports deaths in 2019

Tributes poured in for Emiliano Sala at former club Nantes after a plane carrying the Argentine plunged into the English Channel © AFP/File / LOIC VENANCE

PARIS, France, Dec 18From the tragic death of Argentine footballer Emiliano Sala to motor racing legend Niki Lauda and South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup champion Chester Williams, AFP Sport looks at some of the notable sporting figures who passed away in 2019:

Emiliano Sala, 28

— The Argentine footballer was killed on January 21 when the plane he was in crashed into the English Channel. He was on his way to join Cardiff after they agreed a club record 17 million-euro transfer fee with Nantes.

Niki Lauda, 70

Niki Lauda went on to become a successful entrepreneur following his Formula One career © APA/AFP / ERWIN SCHERIAU

— Austria’s three-time Formula One world champion died on May 20, eight months after a lung transplant. Lauda suffered severe burns on his face and hands, and inhaled toxic fumes which damaged his lungs when his vehicle burst into flames at the Nurburgring in 1976. Despite being given the last rites in hospital he made an almost miraculous recovery to race again just six weeks later still bandaged and in intense pain.

Jose Antonio Reyes, 35

— The former Spain international was killed in a car crash on June 1 on the main road from Sevilla to Utrera. Reyes was part of Arsenal’s unbeaten ‘Invincibles’ who won the 2003-04 Premier League title. He later had spells at Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid.

Marieke Vervoort, 40

Belgium’s Marieke Vervoort won four Paralympic medals — one gold, two silver and a bronze — across the 2012 and 2016 Games © AFP/File / YASUYOSHI CHIBA

— Belgian Paralympic champion Marieke Vervoort, suffering from a degenerative muscle disease, ended her life on October 22 through euthanasia. Vervoort announced her intentions after the 2016 Rio Games after detailing her struggle with constant pain, paralysis in her legs and a condition which left her barely able to sleep.

Bob Willis, 70

— The former England paceman, who famously bowled his country to a dramatic Test win against Australia in 1981, died December 4. Willis played in 90 Tests, taking 325 wickets with his aggressive pace bowling and also captained England for a spell before retiring in 1984 and taking up a career in broadcasting.

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Chester Williams, 49

Chester Williams scored 14 tries in 27 appearances for South Africa © AFP / Gary BERNARD

— The left winger in South Africa’s side that won the 1995 Rugby World Cup died of a heart attack on September 6 after returning home from a gym session. Williams was the only black player in the triumphant 1995 side and has been credited by many with breaking barriers in a team reserved for whites for many decades.

James Small, 50

— The former South African winger, a member of the celebrated 1995 Rugby World Cup winning squad, died of a heart attack on July 10. Small was famed for keeping rampant Jonah Lomu at bay when the Springboks won the World Cup final in Johannesburg, a historic moment for the country just a year after the end of white-minority apartheid rule.

Gordon Banks, 81

A statue of former England goalkeeper Gordon Banks sits outside the ground at Stoke City © AFP/File / Paul ELLIS

— England’s goalkeeper during their triumphant 1966 World Cup campaign, Banks passed away on February 12. A legendary save he made from Pele at the 1970 World Cup came to define his career. “The save was one of the best I have ever seen,” Pele recalled.

Tyler Skaggs, 27

San Diego Padres players pay tribute to Tyler Skaggs following his death which rocked Major League Baseball © GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP/File / Sean M. Haffey

— The Los Angeles Angels pitcher was found dead July 1 in his hotel room ahead of a game against the Texas Rangers. A toxicology report showed Skaggs had ingested a lethal mix of alcohol, fentanyl and oxycodone.

Raymond Poulidor, 83

— The universally loved Poulidor died November 13 but will forever be remembered as the greatest French rider never to win the Tour de France. From 1964 to 1976 Poulidor finished second in the Tour de France on three occasions and third five times in an era dominated by Eddy Merckx.

Anthoine Hubert, 22

The crash that claimed the life of Anthoine Hubert also left Juan Manuel Correa with severe injuries © ANP/AFP/File / Remko de Waal

— The French driver was killed in a horrific high-speed race just minutes into the Formula Two race at the Belgian Grand Prix on August 31. Hubert, who was considered a serious talent by Renault’s F1 set up, died following a three-car pile-up also involving Juan Manuel Correa and Giuliano Alesi.

Frank Robinson, 83

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— The pioneering baseball great, who was the first African-American to become a manager in the major leagues, passed away February 7 after suffering from bone cancer. The Hall of Famer won two World Series titles during a glittering career and remains the only player to win MVP awards in both the National League and American League.

Matti Nykanen, 55

— The Finnish ski jumping ace died suddenly on February 4. Nykanen dominated the sport in the 1980s when he won four Olympic gold medals, six world titles and the World Cup four times. He made headlines after his sporting career as a pop singer and stripper and did repeated stints in prison for assault.

Hidekichi Miyazaki, 108

— A Japanese centenarian who set the 100-metre sprint world record for the over-105 age category died January 23. Miyazaki, dubbed “Golden Bolt” after eight-time Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt, clocked 42.22 seconds in his home city of Kyoto in 2015.

Kelly Catlin, 23

Kelly Catlin’s family revealed she had been suffering from depression in the months leading up to her death © AFP/File / EMMANUEL DUNAND

— The American three-time world champion cyclist took her own life on March 7 after a battle with depression. Catlin was part of the US team pursuit squads that captured world titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018 and also won a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Jessi Combs, 39

— A racing driver considered the “fastest woman on four wheels” was killed in an August 27 car accident trying to break her own record. Combs earned her “fastest woman” title in 2013 when she hit 398 miles (641 kilometres) per hour.

Pernell Whitaker, 55

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— The former Olympic boxing gold medallist and four-weight world champion died after a traffic accident in Virginia on July 14. Whitaker was regarded as one of the most gifted fighters of his generation, a skilful technician who enjoyed a successful professional career after winning gold as a lightweight at the 1984 Olympics.

Andres Gimeno, 82

Andres Gimeno won his only Grand Slam title at Roland Garros in 1972, beating Frenchman Patrick Proisy in four sets © AFP/File

— The oldest male French Open champion in the Open era passed away October 9. Gimeno’s biggest achievement was winning Roland Garros aged 34 in 1972 but he also reached the Australian Open final in 1969 and the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 1970.

Billy McNeill, 79

— The former Celtic captain, the skipper of the ‘Lisbon Lions’ side that became the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967, died April 22 after suffering from dementia for a number of years. His spent his entire playing career with Celtic before going on to manage the Glasgow giants.

Peter Snell, 80

— The New Zealand running great, the most dominant middle-distance runner of his era, died December 12. Snell, who had suffered heart problems for a few years, won gold in the only three Olympic events he contested — the 800 metres at Rome in 1960 and the 800m and 1500m in Tokyo four years later.

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