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  • Who's to Blame for Cyclist Marco Pantani's Death? Mea Culpa
    Our Paesani

    by Francesca Di Meglio

    Marco Pantani, the cyclist, died alone on Saint Valentine's Day in a hotel room in the Adriatic resort town Rimini. But we killed Marco Pantani, the man, years ago. And we are in danger of murdering other beloved, but flawed, professional athletes - unless we heed the warning Pantani is sending us from beyond the grave.

    Pantani, 34, rose to hero status in 1998 when he became the first since Fausto Coppi in 1952 to win the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, the cycling world's most prestigious tournaments, in the same year. Known as "il pirata" or "the pirate" for his signature hoop earring and bright bandana, he was Italy's favorite son back then.

    But in 1999 Pantani was accused of using performance-enhancing drugs and booted out of the Giro d'Italia, a humiliation and disappointment he never quite got over. He was embroiled in two doping scandals, but there was no conclusive proof that he had taken drugs in either case. In the years since his expulsion, friends and family of the cyclist said he had become a different person. He faced serious bouts with depression and may have used cocaine, according to various reports.

    The world of sports, especially cycling, seems to be riddled with professionals turning to chemicals for a slight edge. (Just days after news of Pantani's shocking death, French cyclist Philippe Gaumont was dropped by his sponsor Codifis after confessing that he used the illegal red blood cell booster EPO.) In the wake of Pantani's death, many were left wondering, "Why was he the one paying the price for crimes everyone committed?" The question was on Pantani's mind as well. At his funeral in his hometown Cesenatico, his manager Manuela Ronchi read letters he wrote and left inside his passport: "For four years I've been in every court, I just lost my desire to be like all the other sportsmen. But cycling has paid and many youngsters have lost their faith in justice."

    Perhaps, the authorities weren't the ones using Pantani as an example. Perhaps, it was God, who wanted Pantani to unearth our sins. Last week on the Italian sports news program Domenica Sportiva, a journalist in Washington, D.C. held up The New York Times' front-page article on Alex Rodriguez' multi-million-dollar deal with the New York Yankees, the richest franchise in Major League Baseball. This journalist was trying to point out that professional sports have become such a lucrative business that athletes have become more like property than people. Owners want to buy the best breed of athlete. Coaches have their own pride on the line every time their team takes the field. And fans demand a show, especially after paying outrageous prices for tickets to the stadium or the necessary cable or satellite television to see races or games.

    Just before his mysterious death, Pantani isolated himself, making sure that even those closest to him wouldn't be able to reach him. The autopsy revealed that Pantani died from circulatory and heart failure, which included bleeding in the brain and lungs. But police found a white powder alleged to be cocaine and empty tranquilizer bottles in his room, which was a mess, according to reports. He had locked himself in by putting furniture in front of the door. The authorities ruled out force and weren't even calling it a suicide. Maybe, Pantani did not consume something with the intention of killing himself at that precise moment. But he wasn't doing anything to sustain his life either. His spirit was already dead.

    Ever since his actual death, Italian athletes and sports reporters have been debating who was to blame for the neglect -- and ultimate loss -- of Pantani. I'm here to say that WE -- his friends, his family, his fans, the media, the public -- are at fault for creating mythical heroes and having expectations that mere mortals can never achieve. The pressure builds and athletes let team doctors inject this or that to help them get through the big game. (Right now, Juventus soccer club is facing charges in court because of team doctors who may have provided players with banned substances.) They drink "protein" shakes or take "diet pills" when the coach or fans ride them hard.

    Even if athletes are drug-free, they cannot escape the public's microscope. Look at Christian Vieri, who is still one of the top goal scorers in Europe but gets booed by his own fans. We have already heard the horror stories about hooligans in Napoli and elsewhere who followed players home after a bad game. No one -- even if he is getting paid more money than we'll see in our lifetimes -- should have to live like that.

    Last week, athletes were sad about Pantani's death but I think it touched them in a different way than it touched everyone else. A.C. Milan Captain Paolo Maldini had his team wear black armbands to salute their fallen friend and number one fan. Former Italian national team coach Arrigo Sacchi cried on television and begged the public to remember Pantani as a champion, not as a depressed drug addict. Soccer legend Diego Maradona, who also was banned from his sport for failing a drug test, told the public to look in the mirror when searching for a suspect in Pantani's death.

    These athletes know that they are not safe and that the demand to achieve results is tremendous. But retirement might be an even worse fate. Most of these athletes reach the pinnacle of success in their late teens and twenties. By 35, the public tosses them aside for the next Pantani. "For champions, it is too easy to go from being loved and exalted to being hated," said Italian skier Alberto Tomba, according to CNN. And then what? Twiddling your thumbs? Or worse, tending to nagging health problems, a result of the drugs you used to get by in your hay day? Shame on us!

    Most of these professional athletes started with good intentions; they wanted to play a sport they loved and make a living. But things tend to go wrong when lots of money and the pressure to win are thrown on your shoulders at such a young age. As the athlete tries to pull himself out of quicksand, he often remembers his passion. "Il mio linguaggio è la bici…e voglio continuare a scrivere quel capitolo del mio libro che da troppo tempo ho lasciato in sospeso," wrote Pantani in his autobiography. [In English: "My language is the bike…and I want to continue to write that chapter of my book that for too long I have left in suspense."] He just wanted to ride his bike. That's all. I'd like to think that he's finally getting to do that now - in Heaven.

    Please share your thoughts and sentiments about Marco Pantani and the state of professional sports here: fdimeg10@aol.com

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