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– Fact 1: Pantani was a habitual drug user, chronically addicted to cocaine.
– Fact 2: Pantani almost certainly doped for his entire professional career.
– Fact 3: There appears to be a real push to retell the Pantani story and reshape, or repackage, these two previously-accepted facts.
We’ve heard quite a few claims in recent months. That Pantani was not alone prior to his death. That Pantani was murdered by persons unknown, who forced him to drink a lethal concoction of cocaine of water. That Pantani was somehow, unjustly, framed during the 1999 Giro d’Italia, his expulsion for a high haematocrit part of a nefarious plot. That the mafia were linked to this, somehow influencing the doping testers in order to spare themselves financial disaster from sporting bets.
And now, bizarrely, that Il Pirata, should posthumously be awarded victory in a race he never finished; a proposal which has apparently been accepted by the rider who did win the 1999 Giro, Ivan Gotti.
At what point will common sense prevail? The Italian media are getting themselves in a complete tizzy about these scandalous developments, the conspiracy theories are being picked up by foreign media elsewhere, and lawyers are swooping like vultures, making another killing a decade after Pantani breathed his last in a lonely, upended, chaotic hotel room.
Ten years later, the rider’s sad life and sadder fate are still being picked apart, still being used to satisfy the motivations of others.
CyclingTips contacted Matt Rendell, writer of the meticulously-researched Death of Marco Pantani, seeking his opinion on the matter. He gives an intelligent, reasoned take on things and explains why much of what is being claimed simply doesn’t ring true.
Amongst the allegations he dismisses is the notion that Pantani’s Giro test results were somehow warped to achieve an ulterior motive.
“If the test results were manipulated, you have then to accuse Antonio Coccioni, who was the anti-doping inspector,” he says. “You have to accuse one or other of Partenope, Spinelli and Sala, the doctors who took the blood samples. In fact, you have to accuse all three of them, because they worked together. You have to accuse them of being in league with the mafia.
“No-one is doing that because they know that the minute they do that, they will be sued out of sight and the whole thing will fall apart.”
Read on to see Rendell’s deconstruction of the latest claims.
CyclingTips: How do you see things in terms of what has been said lately about Pantani?
Matt Rendell: Let me start with the bigger picture. For four hundred years, western democracy has evolved hand in hand with something that some people call civil society, and other people call the public sphere, i.e., newspapers, periodicals, clubs, associations and talking shops of people discussing the events of the day, Politics with a big P and politics with a small p. Democracy isn’t just what goes on in parliament, it is the air we breathe. And sport is part of it.
Sport has to be part of democracy: it has to be honest – demonstrably so – and it has to be held to account. And even though it is only sport – as Dan Craven brilliantly said at the end of the Vuelta, ‘it’s only a bike race,’ – nonetheless it is part of the democratic process. It matters, in that sense.
This whole revived Pantani story is based on rumours and innuendo that are ten years old, in the case of his death. Nothing new has been said that wasn’t been said in 2004. And in the case of Madonna di Campiglio, 15 years old, because nothing new has been said since 1999.
It is a waste of public money. It is acting as if…I mean, all of the thorough and praiseworthy and exemplary police work that took place in 1999 and in 2004 is now being portrayed as if it was corrupt and inadequate, for no reason. In this sense, the current developments are actually dangerous.
Now things have just got beyond parody. It seems to me that sooner or later, in the eyes of sports fans around the world, the notion that there is something quite wrong, or that there are people who are prepared to manipulate the democratic and legal processes in Italy, is going to cause damage to that country and to Italian sport.
In mid-November Andrea Rossini of the Corriere di Romagna will be publishing his re-edition of The Final Kilometre. I will be translating it into English. It utterly destroys the murder hypothesis.
As for Madonna di Campiglio, I see even reputable media outlets reporting Vallanzasca’s allegations as if they are fact. They are reporting Pantani’s claim about his haematocrit level the evening before the health test before the Madonna di Campiglio as if those claims are fact.
Just suppose Pantani was telling the truth when he claimed that his haematocrit was 48%: it would be tantamount to a confession to doping, although everyone seems to be missing that.
CT: In making that judgement, are you drawing on previous results from him? Is there an idea of what his natural level should be?
MR: It is in the book [Rendell’s The Death of Marco Pantani]. I seem to remember 42.9 percent.
I am very surprised that no Italian journalist wrote an investigative book like mine, because all the documentation is obviously in Italy. So I think the current, manufactured scandal also represents something of a crisis in Italian journalism. Thank God for Andrea Rossini, who single-handedly is representing the other side. And, let’s face it, it is very unfashionable to say that the police were right: you are not going to sell many books saying that the Warren Commission was the last word in the JFK assassination. But sometimes truth and democracy and due process isn’t about what is fashionable, it is about the facts.
“When they start then looking at the sporting record, they have gone too far”
CT: In your book, one of the main suggestions about the Madonna di Campiglio was that the doctor may have been out partying all night and didn’t get back to the hotel until that morning, and therefore wasn’t there to dilute Pantani’s blood when needed. Also, that perhaps Pantani wasn’t given enough time before his test to be able to dilute his blood.
MR: There are a number of hypotheses, and those were among them. And there were the opposite hypothesis that the doctors had arrived late and while he had diluted his blood in the couple of hours before he was tested, that it could have risen again.
Actually, it is quite amusing listening to the people who were actually there: you can’t get a straight story out of them.
Ultimately, everything we know about Pantani from 1994 from masses of documentary evidence shows that he was doped from then, if not from as early as 1992, when Conconi and his colleagues were monitoring his white blood cell count and recording it in a file named “diana.wdb,” which rather suggests steroid use. So why wouldn’t he have been doped in 1999?
CT: You mentioned politics, the big P and the small p. Do you see there is some political motivation behind this, do you think it is about selling more papers, or what is going on?
MR: I think it is a perversion of due process in Italy in relation to Pantani.
CT: If you feel it is a perversion of due process, do you blame the press or do you think it’s wider than that? In other words, is there something wider going on that trying to sell more papers?
MR: No, I don’t think so, apart from a pubic taste for scandal and for simplification, because drug addiction is complicated, so the murder hypothesis is satisfyingly simple, and ties up all the ugly loose ends. And we have known, from the moment the Spanish courts gave back to Roberto Heras his Vuelta win, that the law courts don’t deal very well with cycling and doping, because it is all rather complicated.
For that reason… what comfort could there conceivable be from discovering that Marco was murdered – and he wasn’t – defeats me. But when they start then looking at the sporting record, they have gone too far.
One piece of circumstantial proof against the Madonna di Campiglio story, that he was clean there and he was murdered, how come Pantani’s parents signed off the film The Accidental Death of a Cyclist in February this year? They had to sign it off to allow it to be shown, which looks like an endorsement of what that film says, and the film doesn’t dispute the fact that Marco was doped. It also says – and I disagree with this – that “something strange” happened at Madonna di Campiglio.
And at no point does the film suggest that he was murdered. That would be absurd. It was signed off in February, and then, all of a sudden, this brilliant lawyer, De Rensis, comes along to couch all this kind of innuendo and lunacy in the type of legal language that compels the courts to take a second look.
Hotel room: “There was no way in and no way out”
CT: So do you think this is simply about washing Pantani’s image years later, to portray him as something other than a drug addict and someone who was using performance-enhancing drugs?
MR: Yeah. That’s what I think.
CT: Can you explain why you believe the murder hypothesis is nonsense, why you feel it is absurd?
MR: Primarily, because the room was locked from the inside, barricaded. The witness statement of the receptionist, Pietro Buccellato, has never been questioned. The windows were locked. There was no way in and no way out. When the receptionist went up, he had to push the barricade back to get in.
We know how Marco died. The hypothesis that he must have been forced to take the cocaine that would lead to an overdose is preposterous. He could have died on at least three occasions that I can think of right now in exactly the same way.
Sadly, he was addicted to cocaine. He had already had a number of overdoses. He had been brought back from the brink in the past. Sad to say, if he hadn’t died on the 14th of February 2004, in all probability he would have died a month later, or two months later, under the same circumstances.
As he could have died on the 27th of December 2003 in the same circumstances, as he could have died in June 2003 at his home in Saturnia in the same circumstances, as he could have died in Cuba in November 2003 in the same circumstances.
Every time he goes into a hotel room, locks the door, barricades it, turns the heating up and overdoses.
CT: Do you think these times were deliberate, those overdoses, or did his addiction simply spiral out of control?
MR: Well, the autopsy report is quite clear. There was never any question of suicide because suicide implies clarity of purpose. But Marco’s incoherence under the influence of cocaine didn’t permit that. So there was never any question of that.
And that too – the whole dramatic staging of these hypothesis. First of all, that he didn’t OD, he was murdered. Then he was set up at the Madonna di Campiglio. Then he should have had the 1999 Giro given back to him. The whole dramatic staging of the current process, to my mind, works against veracity.
It is so manipulative and so planned. So rhetorically constructed. Starting off by saying that it wasn’t suicide, when there was never a suicide hypothesis. Then saying the doping test was manipulated, but he never failed a doping test. The Madonna di Campiglio test wasn’t a doping test, it was a health test.
“All of this innuendo is made without ever getting to the point”
CT: What of this notion that Gotti should surrender his 1999 title and Pantani should be given it. What is your reaction?
MR: Well, he never crossed the finish line…
CT: And you don’t feel that there was any reason why he shouldn’t have been stopped from completing that race?
MR: No, not that we know of. If the test results were manipulated, you have then to accuse Antonio Coccioni, who was the anti-doping inspector. You have to accuse one or other of Partenope, Spinelli and Sala, the doctors who took the blood samples. In fact, you have to accuse all three of them, because they worked together. You have to accuse them of being in league with the mafia.
No-one is doing that because they know that the minute they do that, they will be sued out of sight and the whole thing will fall apart. So all of this innuendo is made without ever getting to the point, and that point is that you have accuse the doctors who took the blood samples.
So the whole thing is a kind of game of shadows and strategic silences. It is not fair. It is not fair on the doctors who took the blood, as they are by implication being accused of something that they can’t defend themselves from, as the accusation is tacit. Because no-one has got the balls to say what they mean. And the minute they say what they mean, the whole thing will fall down like a pack of cards.
CT: What do you think is ultimately going to happen?
MR: I think it will simply go away, except that ultimately…when you sow doubt, it is rather mischievous, because then to dispel that doubt you have to go through it point by point. And most people aren’t that interested. So they will hear the accusations and the doubts and they will never go and read Andrea’s new book, or read my book from 8 years ago that already addresses almost every single point that has been raised in this supposedly new case. So they won’t see why all of this is complete nonsense.
In that sense, I don’t think it is about getting legal decision. What happens in the forum of considered weighing of evidence is beside the point. All they will do is sow doubt and people will be left with this idea that sometime in the past there was an Italian cyclist who was set up. They won’t remember who, they won’t remember what, they won’t remember by whom. All they will remember is that he was set up.
I think that is the point of this whole campaign. It is rather mischievous.
CT: Do you think the journalists are complicit? Are there journalists there who should know better and who are choosing not to?
MR: Some pretty solid journalists have refused even to mention the story. Five seconds thought leaves them…at least you have to say, this sounds pretty strange to me, is there any truth in it? And then you make a few phone calls…
So I think there is an extent to which some journalists are complicit in it. What happens these days is that product manufacturers and race organisations and other parties issue press releases which are then faithfully copied out by some of the media.
And in this case, you have a series of allegations, and the language is always couched in such a way that the journalist doesn’t have to take responsibility for what he is saying.
I read an AFP report that said ‘doubts have surfaced… speculation is mounting… it has not been denied that….” There are all these passive constructions piled on one after another. It is a way of not making a few phone calls and not checking up if there can be any foundation to this whatsoever.
I think it’s a story that doesn’t really merit coverage, to tell the truth.