Grant Wahl, the famous soccer journalist who died suddenly last week at the World Cup in Qatar, had a ruptured blood vessel in his heart, his family announced Wednesday.
His death was the result of a weakness in an artery wall called an aneurysm, which can balloon outward and then burst open. An autopsy performed in New York revealed that Mr. Wahl, 49, experienced a catastrophic rupture in the ascending aorta, which carries oxygenated blood from the heart.
The autopsy ends the rampant speculation that followed Mr. Wahl’s death. Posts on social media hinted at links to Covid vaccines or retaliation by the Qatari government for an article by Mr. Wahl had written about the deaths of immigrants.
Mr. Wahl’s wife, Dr. Celine Gounder, is a leading infectious disease physician who rose to prominence during the coronavirus pandemic and advised President Biden’s transition team on Covid-19. She and the rest of the family rejectedin particular, speculation linking his death to vaccines, saying it was particularly insulting to his work.
He probably died instantly and felt no pain, said Dr. Gounder said in an interview on Tuesday. “I’m actually kind of relieved to know what it was,” he said.
Mr. Wahl had been suffering from a cold for several days before collapsing, writing in his newsletter and on Twitter that he felt like his body was breaking down after weeks of poor sleep and long days covering games.
He had just turned 49 and was quite healthy, which made his death even more shocking to his friends, family and readers. The flushing and other cold symptoms she had were probably unrelated to the aneurysm, Dr. Gounder said.
Until the autopsy, Dr. Gounder said she had worried that his death might have been prevented if they had spoken more often while he was in Qatar or if she had been there with him.
Mr. Wahl’s brother, Eric Wahl, initially said on social media that he suspected foul play and later suggested that his brother may have experienced a blood clot in his lungs. On Tuesday, Eric Wahl said he no longer believed those were factors in his brother’s death.
The autopsy found that Mr. Wahl had an ascending thoracic aortic aneurysm, a weakening of the blood vessel that often goes undetected. As the aneurysm grows, it can produce coughing, shortness of breath or chest pain, some of which the doctors consulted by Mr. Wahl in Qatar could have attributed it to his cold and a possible case of bronchitis.
In rare cases, the aneurysm can rupture and cause death. Doctors are now exploring whether Mr. Wahl had Marfan syndrome, a risk factor for this type of aneurysm. He was tall and thin and had long arms, all of which may be signs of the genetic syndrome.
Mr. Wahl joined Sports Illustrated in 1996 as a fact checker, a traditional entry route for young reporters, and wrote hundreds of articles on a variety of sports for the magazine over the next two decades.
One of the first profiles, a cover story about a teenage LeBron James in 2002, remained a touchstone for both writer and subject 20 years later. Mr. Wahl occasionally reminded his 850,000 Twitter followers, and Mr. James spoke about what it means to him and his family as he eulogized the writer at a press conference and in social networks the weekend.
But Mr. Wahl was best known for writing about football, which he began covering while a student reporter at Princeton University in the early 1990s. Through his books, tweets, podcasts and magazine articles, he became something of a guide for a generation of fans and readers just learning the game.
She also used her social media profile and megaphone to highlight the growth of women’s football, the extent of corruption in football, human rights violations and gay rights.
Mr. Wahl had worked at Sports Illustrated for more than 23 years when the magazine’s editor abruptly fired him over a dispute over pandemic-related pay cuts. But by then he had a large following and started an email newsletter and podcast that quickly became successful.
In Qatar, Mr. Wahl was covering his eighth World Cup. He was in the press box in the final minutes of the quarter-final match between Argentina and the Netherlands when he collapsed.
According to two New York Times reporters present, medical personnel attempted to resuscitate Mr. Wahl for about 20 minutes before being transferred to a hospital in Doha. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Dr. Gounder’s relationships with the Biden administration and public health agencies, including the New York City Health Department, helped her bring the unembalmed body to the United States for an autopsy.
Dr. Gounder said she wanted to find out the circumstances of her husband’s death in part to quell online speculation. “I wanted to make sure the conspiracy theories about his death were put to rest,” he said.