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Friday, Feb. 27, 2004


Pantani's passing shows how fragile sports stars can be

The recent death of Italian cyclist Marco Pantani, at the age of 34 from an apparent drug overdose, was the final act in a life which had been spiraling out of control for the past 4 1/2 years.

Jack Gallagher

Since being banned from the Giro d'Italia in 1999 -- while leading the race with just two stages left -- after testing positive for a suspected performance-enhancing drug, Pantani was on a long slide into oblivion.

He died alone in a hotel room in the seaside resort of Rimini, Italy, apparently broke and broken, with few real friends remaining after his career had been destroyed by his association with doping in the sport of cycling.

In the entertainment world, a death like Pantani's happens so frequently, hardly anybody bats an eyelash anymore.

However, when a sportsman the stature of The Pirate -- at one time a national hero in his native Italy -- meets a premature end, we often find it difficult to accept.

The toughest part seems to be trying to reconcile the difference between the image of the super hero and reality.

News photo
Marco Pantani, seen here during his victorious run at the Tour de France in 1998, was a man of contradictions. A true warrior on his bike, the Italian star couldn't handle the pressure that followed his implication in doping.

Pantani, who was the last man to win both the Tour de France and Giro in the same year (1998), was known for his fierce skills as a climber.

"I thought Pantani was the finest climber of the last couple of decades, a joy to watch as he flew up the mountains," cycling expert Samuel Abt said Wednesday, when contacted at his office in Paris.

Pantani was a swashbuckling sort of fellow, befitting of his nickname, who often wore a bandana over his shaved head, along with an earring, and won the hearts of a nation with his charisma.

But the simple fact is, that no matter how much we build up our sports heroes, deep down they are just like the rest of us.

Inside the rock-solid bodies on public display are people who have fear, feelings and frailties.

Most of the time we never learn how insecure some of our sporting giants truly are, but when the story of someone like Pantani is laid bare -- for everyone to see -- it is a grim reminder of how easy it is for somebody to go from celebrity to the abyss in a relatively short period of time.

"His ouster from the 1999 Giro was crushing, transforming him from national hero to national disgrace. From then on, he turned bitter, critical and quarrelsome," says Abt, who has covered the Tour de France for the past 27 years.

Over the past 10 days I have been struck by how the family and friends of Pantani have lashed out at the media, basically blaming it for his demise for the constant chronicling of his involvement with doping.

This kind of behavior is not unusual for bereaved people. In sorrow over their loss, they look for someone to blame. While it is regrettable, it is also understandable.

It seems amazing that a person who could stand up to the pressure of winning the two biggest races in cycling -- in the same year, no less -- could crack so easily under scrutiny from the media and public.

"I'm not surprised that he couldn't deal with the pressure since there was so much of it," Abt notes. "It was mainly his fault because of the many drug accusations."

But when somebody has taken away from them what they do best, in their prime, they often have difficulty making the transition to something new.

Cycling was obviously everything to Pantani and he couldn't come to grips with the fact that his career was over.

Some people are able to move on -- and even reinvent themselves -- after the type of setback that he suffered, but not everybody.

The last straw for Pantani was apparently his being passed over to race in last year's Tour de France. Shortly after that he checked into a psychiatric clinic to be treated for depression.

It would be easy to blame Pantani for being weak, and succumbing to not only the temptation to use performance-enhancing drugs and later hard drugs, but that would be too simplistic.

You could say the same about blaming the media for the pressure it put on Pantani after his involvement with doping was uncovered.

It reminds me of something my mother used to tell me when I was a boy.

"Not everything in life is black and white. Sometimes there are gray areas."

It took me many years to finally figure out what she meant, but when I think of Marco Pantani, I understand now.

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