Book extract: ‘Pantani: Debunking the Murder Myth’

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He passed away ten years ago but Marco Pantani has been prominent in the media once again this year, and not just because of that anniversary. In recent months unlikely claims have materialised in the Italian media and spread, from there, into worldwide reports.

The first wave was based on claims that Pantani was murdered by persons unknown, an allegation altogether at odds with the previously-accepted finding that he had died alone of acute cocaine poisoning in a messy hotel room on February 14, 2004.

The second claim was that his expulsion from the 1999 Giro d’Italia while leading the event was due not to a haematocrit over the permitted 50% – or, rather, not solely – but also because those test results had somehow been sabotaged in an attempt by the gambling mafia to avoid a massive payout on his victory.

In more recent weeks, though, the first of those claims has run into problems. First off the police officers concerned decided to fight back against the allegations by Pantani family lawyer Antonio de Rensis plus Pantani’s mother Tonina that they had made a botched job of the investigation and missed evidence that would have implicated a number of assailants.

Those officers declared that they would no longer tolerate claims that they had behaved in a haphazard and amateurish way, and would instead take legal action to defend their honour.

The second blow was the news that Professor Franco Tagliaro, the consultant asked by the court to provide a scientific response to the queries raised by de Rensis, had come to the preliminary conclusion that Pantani’s injuries were in line with the findings of the original autopsy carried out by Professor Giuseppe Fortuni.

This original conclusion had ruled out categorically the hypothesis of any kind of struggle; Tagliaro agreed, dismissing any possibility of a fight due to the absence of hand injuries characteristic of active defence, and injuries to the arms characteristic of passive defence.

There is a third: Italian legal journalist Andrea Rossini has just released a detailed book about Pantani, speaking in detail about the rider’s final days and also dismantling, point by point, the doubts raised in recent months by de Rensis and others.

That publication has now been translated by Matt Rendell, who himself is regarded as a strong authority on what happened to the rider. His book The Death of Marco Pantani is very highly regarded; his collaboration with Rossini has converted the latter’s work into English and resulted in the fascinating new book, ‘Pantani: Debunking the Murder Myth.’

That work is divided into two parts, each of them essential reading. The first describes Pantani’s disintegration, a descent which started the moment he was ejected from the 1999 Giro d’Italia and which reached a sorry conclusion almost five years later in that thrashed hotel room in Rimini.

The second deals with questions raised by those who are trying to rewrite history and repackage Pantani’s demise. Rossini goes through each point by point, providing answers that show that such claims are both fanciful and opportunistic.
CyclingTips has published extracts from both sections below, starting with one of those 23 questions and Rossini’s answer.

Extract one: Dissection of the doubts raised

Q: Why were Pantani’s calls for help undervalued at the hotel reception?

A: On the morning of his death, Pantani called down to reception complaining that someone was making a noise. The receptionist and the cleaner both went upstairs, but were unable to unravel the mystery. A few minutes later, Pantani called down again. He could still hear noises, he said. Then, twice, he asked the receptionist to call the Carabinieri. Why did his requests go unheeded?

Pantani complained about strangers whom neither the receptionists nor the maid had seen enter, and heard voices that no one else could hear (even after listening from the next room). The picture is entirely consistent with perception altered by cocaine abuse. The brief messages, unclear and incomprehensible, can only be interpreted as one more sign of the abnormality or confusion seen in previous hours by the hotel guests who had encountered him. One of them, in Spanish, had described him as loco – mad. In the final call, to the question “Could I do anything for him?” – this is from the receptionist’s statement to the police – “he replied, in a gentle tone of voice, that, if I wanted, I could call the Carabinieri, otherwise, it was all the same.”

Receptionist (Lucia D.) – My first instinct was to ask why, what was happening, and when he didn’t explain or, at least, when he said, no, don’t worry about it, forget it, I was more confused than anything else, I didn’t know what I could do, because I didn’t know, at that precise moment, if that was what he really wanted… To tell the truth, I was confused.

It was, after all, Pantani. A possibly misjudged sense of reserve prevailed. The hotel owner advised her to take her time and not to bother their famous guest:

Owner (Sandrino D.) – I didn’t tell her to call the Carabinieri because I was thinking of the identity of the guest. They had described Pantani as closed, distant. I thought he might have problems, and I thought we should leave him in peace.

“When you say Someone’s making a noise” – observed judge Carlo Masini during the trial – you are not asking for help.” In any case, the hotel room telephone was an outside line which Pantani had used before. There was a list of emergency numbers beside the handset. If he had been in real danger, Pantani could have called the Carabinieri himself.

Either way, it is hard to understand why the phantasmal killers, having gained access to the room, and preparing to forcibly drug Pantani to death, would have allowed him, between 10.30 and 10.55 a.m., to make two calls down to reception, and then take an incoming call.

Extract 2: “Dreams break like waves on an outcrop of drugs.”

Pantani flew back to Cuba from Madrid, taking his bike. His friend Michael knew about the journey and feared the worst. Sure enough, after a week, Pantani’s father called, begging him to go to Havana, all expenses paid, and bring Marco back. He was in trouble. He was surrounded by suspicious characters. He had taken some strange substance. Nevio alone could no longer protect him. In Cuba, Marco wrote in his passport:

– Dreams break like waves on an outcrop of drugs.

When Michael found him, Marco was a mess. Dr Greco gave instructions by telephone, and they saved him by the skin of his teeth. Marco returned to Italy a changed man. He craved cocaine. Like in a race, approaching the final climb, the moment had come to push himself beyond all limits, to the edge of the abyss. His parents tried to keep him under surveillance. They noticed that their son had been seeing a Russian girl for some time, the one he had met that evening at Michael’s. The shadow of suspicion fell on her. Tonina confronted her at the family villa in the village of Sala, outside Cesenatico. Pantani defended her. The argument became heated. The Carabinieri were called. They arrived to find nothing but the desperation of the Pantani: his mother, his father, and his sister.

Pantani was withdrawn. Michael took him in at his home in the village of Predappio, while he looked for somewhere else to stay. Marco asked if the Russian girl could stay over on the night of 25 December. Michael agreed. Marco paid for the girl’s company. The following evening he took her to Rimini. Michael only learned why two days later, on 27 December. With Dr Greco, he rushed to the hotel at Miramare where Pantani had rented a room. Hi behaviour had become erratic and the Russian girl had fled. The door was locked. The room was very hot. The room was in chaos. There were empty cans and a candle in a bottle. There was white powder everywhere. Greco brushed a finger down his blue jacket, then put it to his tongue. He felt the telltale tickle.
Fixing the doctor in the eye, Pantani sniffed another line, as if to say, “This is my life.” A challenge. Then he spoke. Spanish, Italian, moments of clarity followed by incongruous phrases. Incomprehensible.

He sat on a sheet daubed with phrases written in blue ink. The handwriting was illegible. There was no time to lose. Greco gathered cocaine from every corner. He felt the bulk of the pile he had amassed, and turned to Michael:

– 50, 70 grammes.

He disposed of it in the toilet.

Ravenna, 30 December 2003. Dr Greco’s clinic.

– Marco can no longer control it. His life is in danger.

The doctor described the hotel scene to Marco’s parents. Something decisive had to be done. It was no longer a phase, a stage, the occasional binge. His attitude towards cocaine was now compulsive. When he sought solitude, for entire days, his cocaine use knew no limits.

– He is consuming astonishing quantities: up to 100 grammes a week.

He was smoking it, sniffing it, burning it, reducing it to resin or oil and putting the drops in his nostrils. He was eating it. Another physique would have collapsed. Pantani’s strong heart could cope for now, but until when? The doctor recommended emergency measures.

– It is no longer a good idea to refuse compulsory admission. Michael is all very well, but he needs support from someone who is qualified. You should think very hard about involuntary treatment and having him declared incompetent.

The road to recovery through Predappio was no longer viable. It was too compromised by the frequent arguments between the various parties who were trying to manage an increasingly dramatic situation. The disagreements would flare up again after the tragedy. The shadow of cocaine had fallen over the relationship between Michael and Marco, which was by now coming apart at the seams: the homeowner had had enough of finding white powder everywhere. The climate had become violent. Michael vented his frustration in the police station: “I can’t cope with him on my own any more.” Pantani could pass entire days and nights without leaving his room. He had let himself go. He spent New Year behind a security wall of friends chosen by Michael, then broke through it and made for his new dealer in Rimini. The new situation was the subject of a meeting in Predappio on 3 January 2004. Around the table were Ronchi, Greco, the parents. Michael was kept away. The goal was to convince Marco to go into rehab.

– You cannot make me. I just want you to leave me in peace. I’m an adult and I have the right to my freedom. I can cope. Give me my prescription. Other than that, I don’t need anyone.

His birthday was approaching. His friends wanted to organise a dinner. A few days earlier, Marco asked Michael the favour of going with him to the bank to cash a cheque. Ten thousand Euros.

– I want to buy myself a present, he explained…

The full book has been translated to English and can be purchased here. As well as painting an absorbing and sobering account of Pantani’s fate, the publication includes three pieces of completely new information that shed new light on his death.

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