Previous Jurisculture posts have discussed the concept of athletes being citizens of a sporting community in addition to – or sometimes rather than – being citizens of a country. These posts have highlighted the ways in which sports are unifying forces that go beyond the physicality of athleticism or the thrill of competition alone.
As a corollary, this post examines the idea of sports as a bridge between life and death concerns for athletes and how these concerns can become greater than an individual athlete through the international attention sports can attract.
Recently, Belgian Paralympian Marieke Vervoort, a multiple medal winning wheelchair racer, made headlines when there was speculation that she planned to commit suicide at the conclusion of the Rio Paralympic games because she has announced that she is retiring from the sport. Vervoort’s condition involves a painful and life-altering degenerative condition of the spine. Since her diagnosis, Vervoort’s symptoms have progressed to the point where they interfere with her basic life functions. Despite this, she has remained a steadfast and dedicated athlete, winning medals at several Paralympic games.
Under Belgian law, suicide is legal and in the past Vervoort has stated that she is open to the idea of committing suicide at some point. Indeed, she has signed the papers necessary for this to be carried out already. Media outlets, perhaps with a sense of drama, made suggestions about her impending suicide seem as though it would be the culmination of her having met her achievements at the Rio games. Instead, Vervoort has explained that, while she does not intend to take her life at the conclusion of the Rio games, knowing that the option for suicide is available to her has given her hope. Her statements show another side to an often negative topic – the empowering effect that legalized suicide may have for some of those who suffer from crippling diseases.
Although Vervoort has not yet elected to utilize her own right to commit suicide, she has turned the attention she has received into an opportunity to champion for the expansion of legalized suicide laws in other countries. In this way, she is using the platform available to her as an elite athlete to speak about an issue that is typically not addressed by athletes or sports in general.
Marieke Vervoort demonstrates the potential for sports to create a bridge between life and death while at the same time providing a platform for larger societal issues. As an individual athlete, Vervoort is a part of the citizenship of sport that has been involved in providing her with an identity and a source of happiness. She has also found a way to use the status that comes with this citizenship to advocate for issues that are often difficult to discuss in many societies.