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Pantani: A Memory In the Shadows

As you surely know, tomorrow marks the beginning of the 97th Giro d’Italia in Belfast, Ireland. Oddly, though, tomorrow also kicks off the Giro’s remembrance and celebration of Marco Pantani. One stage will follow his old training route, while two mountain stages at Oropa and Monte Campione are dedicated to two of Pantani’s greatest victories. On one hand, the decision delivers a moving sentiment for a legendary figure, but to be perfectly honest, RCS Sport’s decision to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Pantani’s death leaves me with more disappointment than warm fuzzies.

To some degree, the decision embodies the turmoil of the consciousness that surrounds the issues of doping. And to an extent, it feels repugnant to watch the system that chewed up Pantani and spat him out use his memory for a gross attempt at marketing to our emotions. But, despite a knowledge of the past, I’m as guilty as anyone for feeling compelled to tune in for the shear theatrics of it all. It leaves a residual unease that leads me to my real question: Why are we so hero obsessed, even when the conflicting duality between athlete and human being couldn’t be more at odds?

As I’ve been shopping opinions on the matter around the office for the past day, I’ve heard the response, time and again, that “it’s complicated.” On one hand, he’d won the race and is beloved by many of its fans. On the other hand, he was expelled from the race in 1999 for having a 52% hematocrit level. And although he never explicitly tested positive for a banned substance, this hematocrit level is nearly impossible to achieve without drugs — especially at the tail end of a grand tour. Just like in our day-to-day lives, however, we’ve seen these characters before. Through a more Shakespearean lens, Pantani could easily be viewed as a goodhearted thief among thieves, like Falstaff, or a rather contemptuous villain, like Iago. Regardless, though, his story reads like pure Shakespeare, because at once, Pantani’s legacy is one of hero and villain, tragic yet enduring.

But if there is, in fact, a tragedy in play, what is it? Because the last time that I checked, society has historically treated people who overdose on cocaine with about as much sympathy as cycling fans have for cheats. And with all due respect, Pantani was kind of both rolled into one. Yes, his story is admittedly “complicated,” but the thought of a depression fueled by the undertones of a vast conspiracy against him only demand the requisite sympathy from me that I reserve for all victims of mental illness. No, Pantani’s life and story can hardly be debated at this point. The chapters are in a row and the pages are mostly written out. Now, as fans, our only sense of objectivity on the matter is derived from the close reading between the lines and the spirited debate at the book club that will forever be pouring over his life.

In my opinion, we feel a sense of tragedy, because we never received a sense of closure. Pantani simply was, and then simply ceased to be. In this sense, he’s pure Iago — no cause or closure given outside of some scribbles in a passport. And like Iago’s parting words in Othello,

“Demand me nothing; what you know, you know./ From this time forth I never will speak word,”

Pantani didn’t wish to share the reasoning behind his choices in life or his demise, leaving every fan forever guessing. Meanwhile, a character like Lance has stuck around long enough to be awarded the unabashed hatred of everyone from pros to soccer moms. And with people like Di Luca and Ricco, we’ve had enough time to track the trajectory of their free fall from grace, that by the time they hit the ground, we’ve already grown bored to tears and bitter. Pantani, however, died near his prime, making him eternally untouched by history, much like the 27 Club in rock and roll. Surprisingly, my quest for opinions in the office led me to a Marilyn Manson essay that summarizes this sentiment perfectly in a piece titled, “The Dead Rock Star.”

“A dead rock star becomes perfect, and he’ll be that forever. He’ll never change, never get old, never turn into something less great than at his peak, at the moment of his death.
It’s not just death that turns you into an icon. It’s how many people are watching when you die, and the way the camera can turn you into a martyr.”

Perhaps this is why we’ll never likely see Riccardo Ricco Day on the Col d’Aspin or Lance Day on Alpe d’Huez? Both riders performed miracles on these climbs, albeit on drugs, but the darkness of their hero’s duality extends too far to pull the accomplishments back into the light.

But regardless of all these poetics and philosophical quandaries, all that we’re left with is one less person on this earth. As fans, we either remember “Il Pirata” or an alleged doper, not Marco Pantani. The man is dead, but the antihero lives on. Cycling marketers, however, remember a different character — a long expired dollar sign. And this is where I see good taste teetering on the knife’s edge. Admittedly, though, it’s hard to say where to draw the line with things like jerseys, stages, and movies. Should Pantani be forgotten? Absolutely not, but we need to ask the real question, is our placing him on a pedestal simply us forgetting what sent him down the path to destruction in the first place? Probably so. Sadly, his legacy should be one resigned to limbo, never to be forgotten, never to be praised. It simply was.

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