Responding to media reports in La Gazzetta dello Sport that the public prosecutor in Rimini has reopened the case into Marco Pantani’s death due to a suspicion of murder, broadcaster and author Matt Rendell has expressed surprise at the latest developments.
Rendell’s The Death of Marco Pantani is what many consider to be the definitive account of Pantani’s life and unfortunate demise on Valentine’s Day 2004, and he continues to believe – in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary – that an accidental overdose was the cause of the rider’s passing.
CyclingTips spoke to Rendell after La Gazzetta Dello Sport printed its front page story on the case being reopened. While making clear that he, and indeed most people, are still waiting to see what new evidence has been turned up, he said that substantiating the claim would require some very strong new proof.
“First of all, there is a sentence in the La Gazzetta story that says, ‘so Marco Pantani didn’t commit suicide.’,” stated Rendell, giving his initial impressions of the original story published on Friday evening. “But has anyone ever suggested that Marco Pantani did do that? I have spent a lot of my life looking at it, and I have never heard anyone suggested that it was suicide.
“That in itself seems to be a very odd opening gambit. If you need to do that to make a case, to state something in contrast to a hypothesis that nobody has every posited, then that seems pretty weak.
“What we do know is that Marco purchased the cocaine that would kill him. We know exactly how and exactly where and exactly from whom. So it seems to be me to be very unusual hypothesis to say that he purchased this cocaine, but had no intention of using it and it took an unknown third party with motives that no-one has ever identified in any plausible way to perhaps hold a gun against his head and force him to do what he had done on at least three earlier occasions; in other words, to overdose in a life-threatening way.
“Marco had overdosed at his house in Saturnia, he had done so in Cuba, he had done so at the Hotel Touring in Rimini. In each case he had been brought back from the very brink. And on this occasion [in the the Residence Le Rose in Rimini in February 2004] he wasn’t brought back from the brink.
“If the hypothesis that it took someone to put a gun to Marco’s head to force him to behave in a way that had become habitual for him, that also seems to be a remarkable claim. As someone once said, a remarkable claim requires remarkable evidence.
“For this to be true, they must have some very specific and very surprising and very solid evidence, because it seems an absolutely remarkable thing to posit.”
The reopening of the case raises many questions, not least why it took many years for more details to emerge. According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, the new argument is based in part on the suggestion that the level of cocaine in Pantani’s body was so high that the must have drank – or, rather, been forced to drink – liquid cocaine.
The Italian rider reportedly began using the drug in the aftermath of his expulsion from the 1999 Giro d’Italia. He had been leading the race with a huge margin and looked set to follow up on his Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double from 1998, but was ejected when UCI haematocrit checks showed his red blood cell level was above the permitted 50% threshold.
His career took a nosedive after he started using cocaine, although he did rally to take two stages in the 2000 Tour de France. He eventually left the sport in 2003 and was found dead in Rimini in February 2004.
Rendell confirmed previous reports that Pantani had been doing more than simply snorting the substance on the day he passed.
“He had been making a sort of dough balls using bread and cocaine, packing it in his lower lip around his gums. He had apparently also been chewing it and swallowing it.
“There is no way of knowing if this was the first time he had done this; his binges were not something that he did in public, so this wouldn’t emerge until you actually have a dead body with the bread under the lips.”
He confirmed that he was surprised to hear the claim that the rider drank – or was forced to drink – diluted cocaine.
“Ultimately the suggestion is that the original autopsy was incompetent. As I remember it, Marco was said to have been dehydrated. I don’t know about cocaine, and I have never heard of anyone dissolving it in water to take it – but presumably if you did that, you wouldn’t be dehydrated.
“So I don’t know [about the new claims] – they must have something quite remarkable. And if that’s the case, I congratulate them on that.”
Asked if it was fair to say that he is sceptical of the notion of murder, he confirmed that, in the absence of compelling proof, that this was the case.
The disputed meal and the magical getaway
Rendell’s book The Death of Marco Pantani was based on considerable amounts of research and also drew on information from police sources. It earned him considerable praise and he was one of the main contributors to the recently-released documentary Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist.
CycingTips asked him if he knew of any loose ends that remained after the original police investigation reached a conclusion.
“There were a number of avenues that were raised with the police,” he responded. “One of them was the failure to fingerprint the room. But it seems to me that you have the motive in so far as, sadly, Marco was a cocaine addict who had very nearly overdosed on a number of occasions. And you have the mechanism down to the millimetre, by chasing the mobile phone calls between himself and the suppliers, which is all documented in the book.
“So when you have the motives, the means, the place, the individuals, the confessions…you have everything…should police then go and explore alternative hypotheses for which there is not one shred of evidence? Don’t forget they are being paid for out of the public purse.
“Look, theoretical physicists are paid to make extraordinary, imaginative hypotheses about the universe. Police officers aren’t. They are paid to solve crimes, and they solved this one. Now you can go back and say, ‘Okay, just suppose you hadn’t solved this crime. Suppose you hadn’t identified where the substance came from, what the motive for taking it was, all the personalities…the whole mechanism that they did identify.
“Suppose you had identified none of that, and suppose there were open doors, then you could start saying, ‘Well, why didn’t do you do this, why didn’t you fingerprint the room, why didn’t you do this, that and the other?’
“But I have never heard anything – other than utter nonsense – which suggested that the Rimini police didn’t solve the case.”
In fact, Rendell points out, the original judgement summing up the trial of Pantani’s suppliers addresses most of the latest allegations head on:
“No evidence has emerged to suggest that any kind of scuffle took place in the apartment, or that Pantani was induced by force to take cocaine. This hypothesis, in the light of the findings, is quite unfeasible. It is worth underlining that the expert witness [i.e., Dr Fortuni] definitively ruled out the possibility of death resulting from any physical injury of exogenous or mechanical origin.
“It should be added that none of the hotel employees recalled having heard noises, fights or arguments coming from the room on the morning of February 14 … Pantani complained about the presence of strangers that no one else saw and whose voices no one else heard. However, hallucinatory perception is a typical sensory disturbance triggered by cocaine abuse. Similarly, the complete disorder in which the room was found is entirely compatible with the aggression, paranoid delusions and extreme anger caused by excessive cocaine use in its acute phase.”
One claim that was made in the years after Pantani’s passing was that evidence of Chinese food was found in the rider’s hotel room in Rimini; this was alleged by L’Equipe journalist Philippe Brunel in his book Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani.
Rendell doesn’t see anything substantive in this theory. “There was something that Brunel picked up on, that there were two aluminium containers in the room. Marco was said to hate Chinese food.
“But Doctor Giuseppe Fortuni, who held the original autopsy and who examined the scene of death, said, ‘OK, there was grease in the bottom of these containers…but we know that Marco didn’t die of malnutrition.’ And there was never any suggestion whatsoever that this was Chinese food. I questioned Fortuni specifically on this point. The only reason that anyone connected those aluminium Chinese food in relation with these two aluminium containers that had some fats in them is because Marco didn’t like Chinese food. That is the wrong way around.
“That hypothesis is totally bogus and it has been invented because it fits a set of [desired] facts rather than there being any positive proof of Chinese food in the room. That is the only suggestion that there was every anyone in the room.”
Rendell believes there is a bigger problem with the theory that someone else was there with Pantani when he died. “The room was locked and barricaded from the inside,” he said, then adding somewhat dismissively, “but that is not to say that someone couldn’t have got out of the room on a rope over the balcony. They could have done that, but I think you’d need a witness, and you’d need the rope to still be there.
“He could have used a matter transporter beam. Or a kite,” he laughed. “Look, you need positive evidence. Basically, I’d say that these new claims are remarkable and contradict everything I know. They really must have some remarkable and solid evidence if the suggestion of murder is true. Let’s see if this is the case. But I don’t imagine we will hear much more until after the August holiday season.”