Death of Kurt Jensen – 1960

Doping in sport wasn’t new when the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome came around, and cycling had led the way with the first recorded death of modern times – that of a cyclist who ingested trimethyl in 1886. The Olympics itself had seen near-fatality in 1904 when marathon runner Thomas Hicks overdosed on brandy and strychnine. Amphetamines were used in the 1930s, and in the 1950s Soviet Olympic teams were giving athletes male hormones to increase strength and power, while Americans slyly countered with new-fangled steroids.

During the 1960 team time-trial 100 km road race, Danish cyclist Knud (known as Kurt) Enemark Jensen collapsed and fractured his skull, and was declared dead in hospital shortly afterwards. He was the first Olympian to die from a drug overdose and the first athlete to die in competition since marathon man Francisco Lazaro in 1913, Jensen had been taking a drug cocktail – supposedly prescribed by his doctor for medical reasons – that included amphetamine and the powerful stimulant Ronicol. Keen to avoid controversy, pathologists discreetly gave the cause of death as heat stroke. According to insiders, Kurt Jensen was the unlucky one, as most Olympic cyclists were doping themselves as a matter of routine.

If Jensen had a positive legacy, it was the International Olympic Committee’s decision to ban doping, following the recommendation of a medical commission it had set up as a result of his untimely death. However, the real tragedy was that this decision merely served as a starting gun signaling commencement of a never-ending battle of wits between drug testers and athletes determined to cheat their way to victory, using ever more sophisticated chemicals and techniques to outwit the authorities. But doping was not made illegal in pro cycling until 1965, since when the sport has been dogged by seemingly endless doping scandals.

When did Kurt Jensen die: August 26 1960

Where did Kurt Jensen die: Rome, Italy

You should know: Kurt Jensen would not be the last competitive cyclist to die from performance-enhancing drug abuse. Notable future casualties include top British rider Tom Simpson, who died on Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. An increasing number of current or former professional cyclists have suffered premature death from heart attacks thought to be associated with excessive drug-taking.


Manchester United and the Munich Air Tragedy – 1958

Every so often in sport there arrives on the scene a team of such prodigious talent that future glory is all but assured. The Manchester United team of the late 1950s was just such a side. Dubbed ‘the Busby Babes’, they were both talented and cocksure. At last England had found a team to challenge the dominance of Real Madrid, who had won the first two European Cups with some ease. The Football Association had a stuffy attitude to European competition, but allowed English champions Man U to take part in the 1956-1957 tournament. They acquitted themselves well, but lost to Madrid in the semi-finals.

By 1958 The Babes’ were older and stronger and hopes of success were high.

Having secured their place in the semi-finals with a 3-3 draw against Red Star in Belgrade, the team boarded a plane to take them first to Munich and then back home for a fixture with Wolverhampton Wanderers at the weekend. Europe was in the grip of winter and, by the time they reached Germany, conditions were dreadful. After two aborted take-offs in near blizzard conditions, their plane finally took to the air… only to crash soon afterwards. Of the 44 passengers, 23 lost their lives, including eight players.

A singular act of heroism stands out: Harry Gregg, the United goalkeeper, scooped up both Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet (coincidentally the two goal scorers in Belgrade) and carried them to safety. Others were not so lucky and one name among the roll call of the dead stood out – that of Duncan Edwards, arguably the greatest footballer England has ever produced. He survived the crash but died two weeks later. Manager Matt Busby was so badly injured that the last rites were read for him – he eventually recovered after two months in hospital.

When was the Manchester United and the Munich Air Tragedy: February 6 1958

Where was the Manchester United and the Munich Air Tragedy: Munich, Germany

What was the Manchester United and the Munich Air Tragedy death toll: 23

You should know: Of the survivors, Bobby Charlton was to go on to the greatest success, winning medals at domestic, european and world levels. His survival of the crash gave him a steely determination to achieve success – as though to honor the memories of those who died, in his own words ‘What happened still reaches down and touches me every day. It engulfs me with terrible sadness’.


24 Hours of Le Mans – 1955

First held in 1923, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a true test of speed, skill and, above all, endurance. Fans come from across the globe to witness one of the great spectacles of world sport. The 1955 event was billed as the greatest ever. All the best drivers of the day were there and over 250,000 fans had gathered to view the extravaganza.

In the first two hours of the race, drivers were breaking records on almost every lap of the circuit. However, just into the third hour, the British driver Mike Hawthorn was ushered into the pits for a fuel stop. He applied the brakes and, without realizing it, caused the car behind to swerve. This had a knock-on effect, ultimately causing a Mercedes driven by Pierre Levegh to hit a bank close to the grandstand.

The car exploded on impact sending the wreckage deep into the crowd. The driver and scores of spectators were killed instantly. Many more were injured and urgent medical attention was needed. This presented the race organizers with a dilemma and, though their decision not to stop the race may now seem harsh, it was probably the right one. Ambulances and fire crews were coming from the town and if such a vast crowd were to leave en masse they would have blocked their way. The circuit was so large that few had any inkling that something had gone terribly wrong.

Out of respect for their driver, Mercedes withdrew their cars from the race immediately, but all the other teams continued. The race was eventually won by the British Jaguar team of Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb. At the official inquiry into the crash, it was ruled that Hawthorn had not been at fault – it was simply a tragic accident.

When was the 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster: June 11 1955

Where was the 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster: Le Mans, France

What was the 24 Hours of Le Mans disaster death toll: 83

You should know: The accident at Le Mans caused much soul-searching in the world of sports car racing. Mercedes-Benz withdrew from all motor racing and did not enter a car again until 1987. Switzerland banned all circuit motor racing – the ban was only lifted in 2007.


Superga Tragedy 1949

They were sporting legends in their own lifetimes – which would be tragically cut short in 1949. Italy’s Torino football club – popularly known as Il Grande Torino (The Great Turin) – had won the last wartime Serie A league championship in 1944, returning after hostilities ceased to win the next three titles (1946-1948).

In May 1949 Torino was just four games from clinching another Serie A triumph when this super-successful team flew to Lisbon to play a friendly match against Portuguese giants Benfica. It was a testimonial for the great Xico Ferreira, a Benfica legend, and Torino duly adhered to tradition by losing a high-scoring match.

On the return journey, Torino’s three-engined Fiat G.212 – a nearly new aircraft chartered from Italian Airlines – encountered a thunderstorm and zero visibility approaching Turin, causing the pilot to descend in order to make a visual approach to the airport. Unfortunately, the combination of inadequate radio beacons, low cloud and a navigational error had a disastrous outcome. The plane crashed into Superga Hill, hitting the rear wall of the fabulous 18th century Basilica of Superga, resting place of kings and princes from the powerful House of Savoy. Everyone on board was killed instantly.

Italy was profoundly shocked by the tragedy. Torino lost all but one of its first-team players but carried on to win that fourth title, fielding its youth team. As a mark of respect, the remaining four opponents also fielded their youngsters, all of them losing to Torino. But that was the end of Il Grande Torino’s glory years. The club didn’t win another Serie A title for nearly 30 years and the Italian national team was drastically weakened by the loss of Torino’s ten international players.

When was the Superga Tragedy: May 4 1949

Where was the Superga Tragedy: Basilica of Superga, near Turin, Piedmont, Italy

What was the Superga tragedy death toll: 31 (18 members of the Torino first-team squad plus club officials, journalists and crew)

You should know: Torino’s revered captain Valentino Mazzola left behind a great soccer legacy. His six-year-old son Sandro would grow up to become a top player in his own right, making 417 appearances for inter Milan and representing Italy 70 times.


Burnden Park Disaster 1946

The years immediately following World War II saw vast crowds flocking to football games in Britain, as entertainment-starved working men (yes, soccer was a male preserve back then) in flat caps flocked to see their sporting heroes in action. Professional dubs were deeply rooted in their communities in the era before blanket television coverage and stratospheric wage bills, enabling small-town clubs to compete on equal terms with big-city boys. Many professionals still played for their local team – often travelling home on the bus with fans after a home game.

As a founder member of England’s Football League in 1888, Bolton Wanderers had an honorable history that included victory in the first-ever Football Association Challenge Cup Final at Wembley – the famous ‘White Horse Final’ of 1923. ‘The Trotters’ played at Burnden Park, a stadium completed in 1895 adjacent to a railway embankment, on Manchester Road, close to Bolton town center.

The record attendance was 69,912, but a much greater number – estimates go as high as 85,000 – entered the ground in March 1946 for the second leg of an FA Cup Sixth Round tie against Stoke City. The official figure was 65,419, but turnstiles closed 20 minutes before kick-off with 15,000 fans locked out and more arriving. Frustrated would-be spectators simply climbed over turnstiles and walls, entered via the railway embankment or rushed a gate opened from the inside by a father who wanted to escape the crush with his small son.

When the teams emerged just before three o’clock the packed crowd in one corner of the ground surged forward. Two barriers collapsed and the sheer weight of numbers caused a deadly crush that killed and injured a large number of helpless victims.

When was the Burnden Park Disaster: March 9 1946

Where was the Burnden Park Disaster: Bolton, Lancashire, UK

What was the Burnden Park Disaster death toll: 33 spectators died of compressive asphyxia, with over 400 injured.

You should know: Incredibly by modern safety standards, the game began and continued for 12 minutes before the seriousness of the situation was realized and the two teams left the pitch. The danger area was swiftly cleared and after just 13 minutes play resumed. The match ended in a 0-0 draw that sent Wanderers to the FA Cup semi-final, where the club lost to Charlton Athletic.

Happy Valley Racecourse Disaster 1918

In Queen Victoria’s time, wherever Britons went a-colonizing they took with them the sporting institutions they were used to. In Hong Kong, thanks to a small patch of flat, marshy land on a ledge on the island, this included horse racing. Happy Valley Racecourse was laid out in 1845, and celebrated its first race at the end of 1846. Today, Happy Valley is a green oasis completely overshadowed by a skyline higher than Manhattan’s. Then, the surrounding hills overlooking the busy bay were still gardens and cultivated fields. The oval circuit of the racecourse had tight corners. It was intended to resemble a Roman amphitheater, with high stands close to the track.

Hong Kong’s rapid growth saw British interests entrenched. At Happy Valley, that meant the Jockey Club became the sole arbiter of racing and racing etiquette. The racecourse became a fashionable place where ex-pats could practice being elegant, and the Chinese could satisfy their passion for betting. More and more stands were built to accommodate increasingly subtle social strata. Made chiefly of stout bamboo scaffolding and wood, their many tiers were steeply banked to give everyone the best view. The stands sheltered a small village of food stalls, bars and bookies, thronged with the melee from a great port attracted by the sizzling woks and appetizing smells.

One day, in the crush, a charcoal grill went flying and hot coals fired the lashed bamboo stand supports. The flames licked through the seating above, setting fire to people’s clothes in an instant. Panic was as contagious as the fire and with the blazing stands now showering debris on those underneath, mere pandemonium became screaming agony. Most of the victims barely knew they were in danger before they were engulfed. No members of the Jockey Club were killed.

When was the Happy Valley Racecourse disaster: February 26 1918

Where was the Happy Valley Racecourse disaster: Happy Racecourse, Hong Kong

What was the Happy Valley Racecourse disaster death toll: Around 600 people died. Injuries were relatively low because it was easy to jump clear unless you were directly in the path of the stands.

You should know: Though it remains one of Honk Kong’s worst disasters, the Happy Valley fire did not attract the scandal it might have. Hong Kong habitually looked to its future – and disaster was bad for business. Today Happy Valley is still run by the Jockey Club elite.

The Hong Kong Jockey Club currently has around 20,000 members, for whom it provides “dining, social and recreational facilities”.