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Marco Pantani: Italian Cycling's Elvis?

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Susie Hartigan

There's a great gag in the Onion's "Our Dumb Century" book where they gin up a real-time report on the death of Elvis Presley that launches immediately into the bizarre denial that over time took hold of many Elvis fans. "ELVIS DEAD," blares the headline; "Is Elvis Alive?" queries the subhead. I'm old enough to remember the death of The King in 1977, and what followed. People began shouting "Elvis lives!" as a way of suggesting that he, or his music, would live on in the hearts of his fans. And it was almost sweet, until after a little while people began to take it literally. Thus quoth the Onion:

"They said Elvis died of a massive drug-induced coronary. They also said that huge amounts of heroin, demerol, codeine and alcohol were found in his system," Nashville resident Francine Rae said. "Something just doesn't add up."

This is what it was like in real time. Trutherism, as it's known these days, is an ancient art. Stupidity has always been a tough adversary to defeat.

Which is absolutely where we stand with the legacy of one Marco Pantani. We have covered the complex nature of Italian fans' continued love for Il Pirata, and while I've been dismissive of it at times, there are other moments where, perhaps accessing what little Italianness still resides in me, I can see the beauty of his riding, and the sadness of his downfall. Doping is like that -- it makes it impossible to say who that guy would have been in a non-doped environment... but sometimes, it's tempting to look at a guy, for instance an angelic and aggressive climber like Pantani, and say we do know what would have been.

Matt Rendell, author of the remarkably-still-highly-relevant book The Death of Marco Pantani, was in the news last weekcommenting on the actually-happening investigation into Pantani's 2004 death as a possible murder. Putting aside the obvious problems of examining evidence that wasn't very compelling to begin with, ten years ago, Rendell did his best to dash the paranoid fantasies that still exist around Pantani and suggest he was murdered by cocaine dealers. The theory, being pushed by Pantani's parents (ugh), is that Pantani opened the door to the thugs who sold him the coke, who then beat him and forced him to drink water laced with an intense dose of the drug. Rendell prefers the simpler version: that the missing water bottle was full of water, that the coke that killed Pantani was the same coke that was found all over the room, that Pantani ingested it on purpose, and that the barricades of the door and windows were not magically circumnavigated by the thugs. This would be compelling enough evidence even before considering Pantani's history of coke use, even overdosing. Were those murder attempts too?

Rendell said it best, however, when he identified passion for Pantani and a distrust of institutions as the real culprits. The latter is legendary in Italy, and often cited as the inspiration for the Mafia, back before it became an institution for such things as selling cocaine to guys like Pantani. As Rendell says, it's sad in several respects, including disparaging the kind of competent police work people could believe in if they'd stop indulging in fantasies. Saddest of all is the idea that Pantani's parents seem to be leading the charge.

But that's all this is, fantasy, or so it seems. Maybe in Italy, Italian fans aren't any more represented by the Pantani murder fetishists than American music fans are represented by the Elvis Truthers. Yes, they have spent years remembering Marco, devoting Giro stage and multiple monuments to the memory of his exploits with little regard for the role played by EPO. Had he lived, perhaps Pantani would have gotten the Armstrong treatment: relentless pursuit leading to an extended public shaming. Had he stuck with EPO and not switched to a drug -- cocaine -- that destroys your watts per kilogram as well as your body and soul, perhaps his legacy would have grown large enough to make for that level of downfall. Pantani took the sadder way out, making him easier to mourn. As to placing him and his legacy in context, there is a continuing need to do so because passion for Pantani runs so high, and it's hard enough without the Truthers making a mess of it. Perhaps the murder investigation will close and put this stupidity to rest. But then, Truthers don't really work that way, do they?