The Last Word: Springbok great, Joost van der Westhuizen, now tackles his biggest foe – paralysis


Joost van der Westhuizen is barely intelligible but extraordinarily expressive. He is physically diminished yet spiritually enriched. On this, rugby union's showpiece weekend in the northern hemisphere, he redefines notions of heroism and encourages his successors to pause and recalibrate.

The former Springbok captain suffers from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terminal motor-neurone disease characterised by slurred speech, breathing problems and creeping paralysis. Victims rarely live longer than five years beyond diagnosis.

In the two years since Van der Westhuizen was diagnosed he has revealed the courage enshrined in the definitive moment of a storied career, the tackle which stopped Jonah Lomu in his tracks during Nelson Mandela's World Cup final in 1995.

At 42, his body is shutting down while his brain remains hyperactive. Basic actions, such as talking, chewing, standing and walking, are becoming increasingly difficult. The instinct is to recoil, withdraw. Yet instead of succumbing to debilitating weakness he has shown remarkable strength in counselling fellow sufferers.

Sport lends itself to lazy sentimentality and cheap praise. Yet when Van der Westhuizen appeared at a London dinner last week which raised £100,000 for his J9 Foundation, he generated a sense of awe and inadequacy. He could not take to the stage, but spoke through a pre-recorded video, which was received in rapt silence.

"It took me a year to make peace with myself," he said during an equally humbling radio interview with Richard Keys and Andy Gray the following morning. "You learn to adapt and accept. You have a choice: are you going to lie down and die or are you going to live your last few months? Life is joyous.

"In the beginning you go through all the emotions. You start to ask yourself, 'Why me?' It's quite simple: why not me? I have to go through this to help future generations. There is a reason for it, and we don't have to know why."

Rugby can be a destructive force, a sport of misplaced machismo and wanton aggression. It cherishes its warriors like Van der Westhuizen. He is, by his own admission, a flawed man transformed by adversity.

His perspective, painfully acquired, might be acutely personal, but it has a challenging relevance to those athletes who are encouraged to believe in the myth of their invulnerability. He was forced out of celebrity's bubble to confront himself.

He concedes he was wilful, arrogant and recklessly self-indulgent. Those around him made excuses for his excesses. He thought he had reached a nadir three years ago when he tearfully retracted denials that he had been captured on a sex tape involving a stripper.

Then Henry Kelbrick, his friend and doctor, noticed a lack of physical power and indistinct speech patterns. The immediate prognosis that he would be in a wheelchair within a year did not factor in the strength of his will.

Time is suddenly his most precious commodity. He is being injected with an expensive and experimental goat serum designed to alleviate some of the degenerative effects of the disease, which has no known cause.

His achievements, as the great scrum-half of his era, have already conferred an intimate form of immortality. Images of his speed and physicality, his opportunism under duress, will endure. He will continue to stimulate the imagination of those who watched and once wished they could be him.

His plight echoes that of baseball legend Lou Gehrig. He died in 1941, two years after being diagnosed with ALS. His valedictory speech – "Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth" – remains one of the most emotionally charged moments in North American sport.

Van der Westhuizen visits other victims to militate against surrender: "Emotionally they are not in a good space. They feel sorry for themselves and deteriorate quickly. When you accept your condition you will live longer."

As for his own fate, he is unequivocal: "I will decide when I go."

Hamilton is just a corporate hologram

Formula One is an increasingly soulless ritual, a business meeting which requires industrial-strength earplugs. It deserves role models such as Lewis Hamilton. The Briton, who approaches the new season as a Mercedes driver, summarises the smugness and self-importance of a virtual sport.

He has never had the firmest grip on reality, but his graceless lurch into tax-efficient exile has completed the process of alienation from our imperfect world.

The inanities of his daily existence – the £20 million private jet, fully accredited dog and high-profile yearning for a low profile – are the stuff of caricature. So, too, is his vision of a personalised museum.

His desperation to associate himself with Ayrton Senna, a champion of substance rather than a modern corporate hologram, is revealingly narcissistic.

A little bit of Formula One died with Senna that fateful May Day Sunday at Imola in 1994. It became sanitised while clinging to its sacrificial heritage.

Speak to the pre-eminent drivers of previous generations, such as Sir Jackie Stewart, and motor racing's lost humanity becomes apparent. Stewart did not know whether he, or his friends, would be alive by the time the finishing flag dropped. Hamilton, by contrast, doesn't know he is born.

A Sepp too far

Don't look now, but Sepp Blatter is up to something. He's turned against Michel Platini, his supposed successor as Fifa president. Expect him to oppose a winter World Cup in Qatar, propose its relocation in the United States, and grandly cancel plans to retire in 2015. You have been warned.


England's women celebrate after their 3rd place play-off win against Germany
Women's World CupFara Williams converts penalty to secure victory and bronze medals
Arts and Entertainment
Ricardo by Edward Sutcliffe, 2014
artPortraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb go on display
newsHillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'