On Saturday, February 14 the world lost
a flamboyant sportsman, a gifted cyclist,
a delightful caricature and a normal man:
Marco Pantani, Il Pirata, “The Pirate”
probably read in the media already, Pantani
was found dead in his hotel room at the
Le Rose di Rimini apartments in the Italian
city of Rimini on the Adriatic coast.
the man who was greeted by hundreds of
thousands of frenzied fans on the most
difficult mountain passes of the most
difficult races died alone, on the floor,
While the official
cause of death was “heart failure”
or some such medical mumbo jumbo a more
accurate explanation was that Marco Pantani
died of a broken heart.
what ever killed Pantani is a matter for
the doctors. Philosophically, what killed
Pantani is a matter of concern for us
record was incredible. He won the Tour de France
and the Giro d’ Italia. He came back from
a horrific crash that caused his sharp, splintered
femur to pierce his skin. His was third in the
World Championship. He won stage after stage
of the Giro and The Tour. And much more.
Pantani raised living hell. In the crusty, old
world, often times boring world of bicycle racing
Pantani was 55 gallons of gasoline on a smoldering
fire. He antagonized Lance Armstrong and just
about every other world class cyclist in the
major tours. Like the swashbuckling, sword swinging
legend that inspired his nickname he was always
ready for action. And if there was no action,
he made it himself. He was the protagonist:
The combatant. He attacked impulsively and seemingly
without motive. He raced with passion and panache.
With his shaved head, single gold privateer’s
earring, colorful bandana headdress and diminutive
climber’s stature he cut a dashing figure.
As with most climbers, he may have been short,
but he was a giant. His fans loved him for it;
his detractors hated him because of it.
It would appear however,
that his heart was as fragile as a hummingbird’s.
As you know, Pantani
was a climbing specialist. He could ride up
mountains faster than any other cyclist in his
generation. He held the record for the fastest
ascent of L'Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de
France. His riding style was not smooth and
powerful, but manic and wild. He would climb
low on his bike, hands on the drops- utterly
different than you and I. His impish face was
etched in the agony of his efforts. He never
succumbed to the difficulty of a mountain road,
furnace like heat, or the challenges of the
best cyclists in the world.
How ironic that he
should apparently succumb to the frailties of
being a human being.
Pantani had run-ins
with the law. It was alleged that he used performance-enhancing
drugs. The only thing a court of law could actually
prove was that he tested too high for hematocrit.
I know two people who test over the UCI limit
for hematocrit regularly, and neither one of
those have ever used a performance-enhancing
I don’t know
if Pantani used performance-enhancing drugs.
The likelihood is that we will never know for
sure. I’d prefer to think he did not,
but that’s just me.
What I do know is
that Pantani was dealt with cruelly. The press
harangued him. They showed him in his worst
moments as well as his best. Pantani was a famous
man and one of the things I think a famous person
has to trade for their notoriety is an enormous
measure of privacy and sometimes dignity. All
public figures open themselves up for the double-edged
sword that is being in the spotlight. Both sides
of the blade incised Pantani. Often times the
spotlight is so bright that nothing hides in
No one likes having
their appearance made fun of, but we’ve
all done it to each other. The press or a fan
or someone once started calling Pantani “Elefantino”
or “The Elephant” because his ears
appeared large. Some people can let something
like that roll off their back; others can embrace
it and roll with, even use it. It bothered Pantani
so much he eventually got cosmetic surgery on
his ears to make them appear smaller. It is
sad that affected him so much. Fans can be cruel,
but I think a lot of the “Elefantino”
stuff was just good-natured ribbing.
I wish Pantani had
been able to say, “My ears are like an
elephant, like Dumbo the elephant, and they
help me fly up mountains. The other men can’t
climb as well because their ears are all too
small. But I have magnificent ears: A climber’s
We’ve all been
made fun of at some point in our lives, but
not on international television, over and over
and over again. Most of us learn to let it roll
off our backs and endure it. Pantani wasn’t
able to do that. And it put a little crack in
his heart. One of many.
Other things in his
life made that crack grow until, in another
irony, on Valentine’s Day, it finally
tore through his entire heart and finished him.
Cruelty and betrayal
weigh heavily on a person’s soul. Everyone
deals with it differently. For some people,
time heals all wounds. For others, it only causes
the wound to fester and spread, like a malignant
cancer. The only cure is kindness and understanding.
Pantani had endured so much in his life maybe
he was just too tired. Maybe all the comebacks
and disappointments and insults and allegations
and betrayals weighed so heavily on him he could
not endure it. Maybe there was no one there
to hold him up when he finally fell down. Of
all those hundreds of thousands, no, millions
and millions of fans there was no one there
when he needed them. Isn’t that sad?
He had been treated
for depression. He tried to beat it, but it
appears to have been a bigger mountain than
any he faced on the bicycle. Apparently he couldn’t
get over the top.
If you’re reading
this page you are likely an athlete of sorts
yourself. So you already know that in endurance
sports sometimes your ego is enormously inflated
and then unceremoniously destroyed. It is a
wild spectrum to swing through, and some people
make the swing more gracefully than others do.
It also helps when there is someone to admire
you when you are at the top of the swing, and
catch you when you fall to the bottom of the
When something like
this happens the first thing most of us try
to do is find the lesson in it. What can we
learn from the sad, untimely end of Marco Pantani?
There is probably
no one lesson to be learned, but rather a series
First off: Everyone,
no matter how good or bad of an athlete, actor,
singer or star they are- is human. They have
feelings and those feelings can be hurt. All
of us get and give hurt feelings. I’ve
done it; you’ve done it. Some of it is
to be expected. But Pantani had to endure an
incredible amount of it, and maybe he was especially
sensitive to it. Eventually the hurt can be
so bad a person can’t recover from it
on their own.
Also, it is important
to see outside of your world. To see that everyone
hurts, and that hurt is what happens- sometimes
in volumes- before things get a little better.
A depressed person cannot see that. They cannot
visualize that things will get better. They
cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel.
If they are lucky they get help from friends
and professionals and drugs to hold them up
for the time being until they can see the light
at the end of the tunnel on their own. But they
have to have the endurance and desire to do
it. Engrained deep in their soul and character
has to be the desire and belief that things
are not always all bad. They have to be a survivor.
If you have survived to adulthood that belief
has no doubt been tested for you many times.
Sure, it is a tough
sport. But the pain you soak up in the final
hours of Ironman or on a climb in the Tour de
France is completely different than the pain
you feel when someone you trusted betrays you,
someone who you thought was your friend makes
fun of you or the people you thought were your
supporters insult and humiliate you. That kind
of pain hurts. Sometimes it kills. Perhaps that
is what eventually took poor Marco. The pain
was just too much.
For me, as with most
of you I am sure, I wish I could have ran into
to Marco Pantani that day, February 14. I would
like to believe I could have somehow reached
him. I would have said, “Marco, wow, you
are a fine cyclist. Really, kind of a hero of
mine. I have always loved watching you in The
Tour or The Giro. You always make it interesting.
I tried climbing like you do on your drops once
but I simply couldn’t do it. You really
are quite a guy. Thank you for all the exciting
moments. I certainly admire you.”
If he had confided
in a stranger with his disappointments and fears
I would have liked to tell him, “You are
a famous man who has touched many, many, many
people with your courage, strength and style.
That is an enormous gift you’ve given
us. Never mind the people who have caused you
problems. All great men have problems- the greater
the man the greater the problems sometimes.
But remember all the good you have done. The
smiles you have put on faces. The awe you have
inspired, and the breath you have stolen from
your fans when they watch you violate gravity
itself. Never mind what some people say, they
are cruel or jealous or ill-spirited. Don’t
let them hurt you. You are stronger than that.
I have seen it myself on TV. They are probably
not happy themselves. They have never been able
to do what you do- thrill so many fans. Remember
Marco, you are a hero- even when you do not
believe it yourself- you are still a hero my
friend. That is how the world knows you, so
please know yourself that way too.”
very nice. And I am sure Pantani’s many
friends did say those things to him. But my
sentiments and yours, however well intentioned,
don’t heal the broken heart that killed
The Pirate. It was too late.
heart is broken so badly it can’t be repaired.
Whether it is the mammoth, athletic heart of
a super athlete or a normal, average everyday
heart you have to be careful with them. Sometimes
when they break, they can’t be fixed.