Pantani biographer sees little to celebrate on anniversary of Italian’s death

Pantani's biographer says that much of the media coverage surrounding the Italian's death has been self-indulgent and profit-oriented

Photo: Tim De Waele

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Editor’s note: To close out the year, we are counting down the top 14 stories of 2014. VeloNews and Velo magazine’s editorial staff voted this piece as one of our favorite articles of the year.

Matt Rendell, the English journalist who wrote the definitive biography on Marco Pantani, has watched with a mix of bemusement and disgust as the media has tried to outdo itself to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of the Italian cyclist.

“I am not enjoying the spectacle of the media today,” Rendell told VeloNews on Friday. “All of this so-called commentary, it feels so self-indulgent and profit-oriented, and not entirely honest. The media itself are often times doped.”

Rendell’s detailed biography, The Death of Marco Pantani, published in 2006, helped peel back the layers of the Pantani myth to reveal a complex and ultimately tortured soul who could not bear the weight of his own celebrity. Many of the revelations of Rendell’s book, namely that Pantani doped throughout his career, have been confirmed in subsequent police investigations.

Rendell also explored the cultural phenomenon that Pantani became to the Italy of the 1990s, and how his superstardom, mixed with Pantani’s reclusive, almost misanthropic personality, helped seal his doom when officials kicked him out of the 1999 Giro d’Italia for high hematocrit.

Was Pantani a hero, a martyr, or simply another doped cyclist? VeloNews caught up with Rendell on the 10th anniversary of “The Pirate’s” death to explore that question.

VeloNews: Your book came out in 2006, about two years after Pantani’s death, what inspired you to delve deeper into his story?
Matt Rendell: I had written about his death for The Observer newspaper’s sports monthly in the days after he died. About a year later, my publisher asked, “why don’t you write a book about Marco Pantani?” At first, I didn’t want to, because it seemed to me there was enough pain and false controversy already floating around, and it wasn’t something I felt I could contribute to. But when I did take a closer look, it seemed obvious there were a number of different interests claiming to have the right to control this man’s memory.

There were many warring interests, and that opened up some space in which to poke around. There were different versions of Marco’s life and death that were being perpetrated, and I wanted to express a neutral view. There were ethical reasons as a writer not to wade into the Pantani affair, but when I looked closer, there were ethical reasons to do so as well.

VN: Your documentation in the book is impressive, so you obviously spent a lot of time in Italy. How much time did you spend on research?
MR: I went to Italy for a couple of two-week research trips, and very quickly it became obvious the only way of doing this was to go and spend an extended period in Italy. I sold my house and went to Modena in central Italy. I rented a flat, and for the best part of a year, spent a huge time amount of time on research.

I spent the entire advance and then some chasing every possible lead, no matter how wacky. One of the publishers wrote me last weekend to say they had recently re-read the book, and said it stands up to the great spate of doping investigative books that have since been published. If it does stand up, it’s because I was prepared to go all the way. The only thing that counts is the book.

VN: It is surprising how many people agreed to speak with you, everyone from his parents to childhood friends to police, was it easy to gain access to people who knew him?
MR: There are lots of books about Marco Pantani. It’s not my business to pretend to be something other than an investigative journalist. It is very possible some of my interviewees thought I was writing some fanzine. I was open about what I was doing. Perhaps some people didn’t understand what I was doing.

VN: Pantani was such an enigmatic figure. In the course of writing the book did you ever have the sense that you knew the real Marco Pantani?
MR: Yes and no. There are journalists out there who say they were Marco’s friend, and that may be true, but the last thing he needed was another journalist who said he was Marco’s friend. If you’re a journalist, which comes first, friendship or the truth?

I didn’t know Marco personally. I had interviewed him. I did cover the 2000 Giro and I had been around him. I speak Italian. I saw him through the filter of his athletic career and his fame, and that provides a certain viewpoint. When you see how uncomfortable he was with fame, in some respects, seeing him through that filter is in a sense more revealing than knowing someone through the filter of friendship.

I have seen lots of transcripts of police interviews with Pantani, and others, and seen many of the interviews and witness statements during the investigation of his death, which at the time was also being considered a possible homicide, and that provides a different filter. When you’re talking to police, you’re shit scared, the gloss is removed. I would never say I knew Marco, but I got to know some facets of his life, yes.

VN: The structure of your book is quite interesting; the first half examines his athletic career and his rise as a national hero, and the second half delves into his doping history and his fall into cocaine addiction. Why did you decide to write it that way?
MR: I had to write it that way. The reader needs to understand this great affection that Italy had for Marco Pantani. You need to be, to some extent, in love with him like Italy was to understand what happened to him. Understanding that is a complicated thing when you’re not Italian. I wanted to put Pantani in this context, then you can see what it means to feel the shame that Marco felt.

To understand that context, then you can understand what Marco was feeling when he comes out of the hotel at Madonna di Campiglio [1999 Giro d’Italia], to feel the weight on his shoulders, that shame that is making his legs collapse, so much so the Carabinieri have to hold him up.

VN: What do you reflect upon when you think about Pantani’s death 10 years later?
MR: At no point was cocaine or hard drugs, which were and are still a very big part of Italian society, ever addressed by the authorities. That would have given some meaning to Marco’s death. That would have been a worthwhile way of channeling his charisma into a worthy cause. Pantani spent a huge amount of money on cocaine, and he was immersed in the drug culture, and that would have been a campaign worth waging for in Marco’s name. It was a massive opportunity missed.

Also, it would have been nice had there been a campaign for clean sport waged in Pantani’s name. In terms of his legacy, I am not enjoying the spectacle of the media today. There is an enormous chasm between what we are seeing in all these stories about Pantani, and the dogged journalistic search for truth. All of this so-called commentary, it feels so self-indulgent and profit-oriented, and not entirely honest. The media itself are often times doped.

VN: There was an open letter from Lance Armstrong published on this week. How was Pantani different than Armstrong?
MR: Lance has that controlling type of personality. Pantani was impulsive. You cannot be controlling and sincere at the same time. Sincerity means one has to surrender to contrition. That’s what Pantani appears to have done, and that’s why he is still idolized by the cycling public, because he embraced contrition with his self-destructiveness.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that Pantani had a vicious bullying side as well. I remember in the 1999 Giro, he brought Andrea Tafi to tears in the peloton because Mapei had signed [a pledge for clean cycling]. That’s what made Marco so impetuous on the bike. In a sense, in sharp contrast to that goal-oriented calculation, that is the meaning to Marco to many people. He was not calculating, he was impulsive, and as a society, we find that attractive.

VN: Should Pantani be remembered as a great cyclist in a dirty sport, or simply as a doped cyclist?
MR: I am not sure if this came from Susan Sontag, but she often repeated it: “at any one time, five percent of the people are good, five percent are bad, and the rest can go either way.” As moral agents, we have to go with the five percent who are good, come what may. If you have a dirty peloton, then our heroes have to be those five percent who chose not to, even when everyone else was.

As for the argument that everyone else was doing it, therefore the best riders won, it’s a lot more complicated than that. A lot depends on how your body reacts to drugs. Just as Armstrong had tremendous good fortune to respond well to treatments for his illness, everyone responds differently to doping. Charly Wegelius [now Garmin-Sharp sport director] had a wonderful quote in his book: “I had a naturally high hematocrit, I was the one with the athletic gift, and I was getting penalized for it.”

VN: In your investigation, you make it quite plain that Pantani doped throughout most, if not all, of his racing career, from his amateur days until his final races, is that true?
MR: It seems absolutely clear that he was drugged for his entire career.

VN: So the only way to view Pantani is that he was an exceptional doped climber?
MR: What doping does is take away our criteria for judgment. You just have to put a thick red line through it; we just don’t know, and we cannot indulge in some sort of “what if.” The fact is, that sometime in 1993 and 1994, there was a decision at the highest levels of the sport about what are we going to do about EPO? Do we fight it? Do we confront it? Do we bring it into the public arena? Or do we sweep it under the table? We are still suffering the consequences of that decision.

VN: What was the biggest surprise for you personally during the course of your investigation into Pantani’s career and demise?
MR: There is a such a mass of documentation relating not only to Pantani, but to all of the big riders based in Italy in the mid 1990s, so as a writer, you need to get the documentation. There is an absolute mass of it, so that was kind of the revelation for me. I was surprised that I was able to interview [Francesco] Conconi. I interviewed just about everyone, but when you’re doing these things, you target people whom you know are going to give honest and revealing material. I didn’t target his former teammates or staffers.

VN: Do you believe the sport has changed since the days of Pantani and Armstrong?
MR: I do not think mankind becomes more honest or more dishonest as we evolve. I do think there is merit to the Kerrison argument [Sky coach Tim Kerrison], that assumes that for 20 years, very little was learned in terms of how to train a non-doped physique. I do believe there is a huge area for development. [Chris] Froome’s spinning, whirring attack on [Alberto] Contador on Mont Ventoux [at the 2013 Tour de France], I did look at that last summer and believed I was seeing a technical innovation that I had never seen before. Cycling is a great big circus, and it’s the good five percent that we need to celebrate and support. How lucky are we now, like we were last week in the Dubai Tour, to work with guys like [Marcel] Kittel and [Taylor] Phinney? I’d like to think the sport’s going in the right direction.

VN: After nearly 10 years since the publication of your book, would you add anything?
MR: There’s Operación Puerto, Marco appears in that. There’s the French Senate report that come out, so those are two lines I would have to add. I am very proud of how the book stands up. I wouldn’t update it. It has to stand on its own merits.

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