A Champ to the End

February 09, 1993

Tennis star Arthur Ashe, who died Saturday from AIDS-related pneumonia at age 49, refused to consider himself a "victim" of the deadly epidemic that to date has taken the lives of more than 150,000 Americans. Like so many other events in his extraordinary life, he took the tragic circumstances of his illness as an opportunity to contribute to the society in which he lived. In the end, he departed this world like a true champion.

Mr. Ashe undoubtedly would have preferred to remain silent about his illness. He revealed his condition to the world only last April, after he became convinced that news organizations were about to publish the story. On making the announcement, Mr. Ashe pledged to work to increase awareness of the AIDS epidemic even as he criticized the press for publicizing what he insisted was a purely private matter.

Yet the particular circumstances of Mr. Ashe's case and his unselfish efforts on behalf of AIDS patients brought about a momentous change in the way most Americans viewed the disease.

Mr. Ashe contracted the AIDS virus in the mid-1980s through a blood transfusion necessitated by a series of heart attacks he suffered beginning in 1979. Unlike other recent celebrities figures afflicted with AIDS, Mr. Ashe was not a homosexual, nor did he use drugs or engage in promiscuous sex.

Yet he never argued that his ethically irreproachable lifestyle in any way made him an "innocent victim" of the disease. Indeed, he pointedly rejected the whole notion of "innocence" and "guilt" as meaningful descriptions of people with AIDS. Similarly, he rejected the victim label because it implied a loss of personal integrity he never felt.

Mr. Ashe spent his final months trying to turn his personal misfortune into service for the world in which he lived. He became active in the fight against AIDS, forming a fund-raising foundation and joining the boards of the UCLA and Harvard AIDS institutes. He also continued to write a newspaper column in which he stressed the need to create more opportunities for young black players to enter the world of tennis where he had made his own mark against such heavy odds. He will be remembered as a pioneering athlete whose extraordinary qualities of personal integrity and courage made him an indisputable champ to the end.

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