Sudden cardiac death of a young athlete is the most tragic event in sports and devastates the family, the sports medicine team, and the local community. Such a fatality represents the first manifestation of cardiac disease in up to 80% of young athletes who remain asymptomatic before sudden cardiac arrest occurs; this explains the limited power of screening modalities based solely on history and physical examination. The long-running Italian experience showed that electrocardiogram (ECG) screening definitively improves the sensitivity of pre-participation evaluation for heart diseases and substantially reduces the risk of death in the athletic field (primary prevention). However, some cardiac conditions, such as coronary artery diseases, present no abnormalities on 12-lead ECG. Moreover, cardiac arrest due to non-penetrating chest injury (commotio cordis) cannot be prevented by screening. This justifies the efforts for implementing programmes of early external defibrillation of unpredictable arrhythmic cardiac arrest. This article reviews the epidemiology of sudden cardiac arrest in the athlete in terms of incidence, sport-related risk, underlying causes, and the currently available prevention programmes such as pre-participation screening and early external defibrillation by using automated external defibrillators. The best strategy is to combine synergistically primary prevention of sudden cardiac death by pre-participation identification of athletes affected by at-risk cardiomyopathies and secondary prevention with back-up defibrillation of unpredictable sudden cardiac arrest on the athletic field.