Title: Pantani - Debunking the Murder Myth (originally published in Italy as Delitto Pantani - Ultimo Chilometro (Segreti e Bugie))
Author: Andrea Rossini (translated by Matt Rendell)
Publisher: Rendell/Rossini (originally published in Italy by NdA Press)
What it is: A response to the recent attempts to portray Marco Pantani's death as a murder mystery
Strengths: Rossini offers a lucid account of Pantani's final months and clear responses to the key questions being raised by those who would have the world believe that Il Pirata was murdered
Weaknesses: This is not a story of the Marco Pantani you'd like to remember, of Il Piarata scaling mountains, this is the story of his final descent, a dark tale that at times traps you in that Rimini hotel room with him
True crime has always captivated the masses, probably all the way back to Cain and Abel. The genre achieved new levels of respectability in the 1960s when Truman Capote published In Cold Blood and then spent the next couple of decades mostly slumming it on the shelves with the penny dreadfuls. In recent months the genre has again found respectability, with the commentariat drowning the Serial podcast in praise. And, in recent months, it has also become the genre du jour in cycling circles, with the myth of Marco Pantani morphing into a modern murder mystery.
We have all been blaming others for Pantani's death for a considerable time now. The sport of cycling killed him, we like to say solemnly. We have all been trying to explain to ourselves how a man as popular as Pantani could die the death he did: alone in a €55-a-night hotel room, coked out of his mind. Some, though, have been going further than that, and have been trying to create an alternative narrative for Pantani's last hours and paint Il Pirata's death as a murder mystery.
Some here have been explicit in the manner in which they have made their point: Philippe Brunel went there in 2007, in his Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani, which criticised the manner in which the investigation into Pantani's death was conducted. Others have been less explicit: James Erskine chose as a title for his 2014 documentary film Pantani - The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, which knowingly nods to Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist in which a murder is passed off as a suicide.
It was, then, perhaps no surprise when the Pantani family marked the tenth anniversary of their son's passing by attempting to get the investigation into his death re-opened and the original judgement overturned. Ahead of the actual anniversary on St Valentine's Day Tonina Pantani, along with Gazzetta dello Sport journalist Francesco Ceniti, published a new book, In Nome di Marco (In the Name of Marco), in which mamma Pantani claimed that her son wanted to tell the truth about what had happened at Madonna di Campiglio in 1999 - when Pantani was ejected from the Giro d'Italia while wearing the maglia rosa - but was stopped by others. And in August, Rimini's public prosecutor Paolo Giovagnoli announced that his officers were studying a file produced by a lawyer acting on behalf of the Pantani family, Antonio De Rensis, which claimed that persons unknown could have entered Pantani's hotel room in his final hours and forced him to drink a bottle of water laced with cocaine.
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"Pain requires answers. Perhaps a mother's pain requires them even when there are none. Life would be so much easier if we could blame our troubles on others: if someone could be held responsible for everything, whatever the situation." So writes Andrea Rossini in Pantani - Debunking the Murder Myth, a brief e-book (c44,000 words) that looks at the main questions raised by the new investigation in Rimini and, by offering a detailed look at the last eight months of Pantani's life (as well as direct responses to the key questions raised by those pressing the case for murder), seeks to show that there is a lot less to the murder mystery than meets the eye.
The last eight months of Pantani's life trace the period from his fourteenth-place finish in the 2003 Giro d'Italia through the refusal of Jean-Marie Leblanc to extend Pantani's Mercatone Uno team an invitation to the Tour de France and into the downward spiral of drug abuse that ended in room 5D of the hotel Le Rose in Rimini on Valentine's Day 2004. On five occasions during that period Pantani was only narrowly saved from self-destruction through cocaine abuse: in his villa near Cesenatico, Emilia-Romagna; in his villa in Saturnia, Tuscany (twice); in Havana, Cuba; and in the Hotel Touring in Miramare, Rimini. On five occasions during that period Pantani had had luck on his side. On the sixth ... well which is the more incredulous theory, that Pantani's luck finally ran out or that someone murdered him?
To believe in the murder theory you have to solve a staple of classic crime fiction: the locked room mystery. The Pantani family lawyer may have identified the secret passage by which Pantani's putative killers could have gained entry - and exited - the hotel, but doesn't explain how they barricaded behind them the door to Pantani's hotel room and locked it from the inside. Matt Rendell, Rossini's translator in this endeavour, notes in his introduction that for at least one Italian journalist the impossibility of this situation is all that is needed to prove it was possible: "One well-known Italian sports writer even commented, 'Locked from the inside? But that's the classic crime story scenario,' thus transforming evidence against the murder theory into proof that it was true. It was not said as a joke."
The real mystery behind the murder theory is not, then, who done it, but actually how and why this theory has been allowed to propagate the way it has. We who rely on others to translate international news stories for us have seen but a fraction of the coverage the story has received. In Italy, however, the story spread far and wide. As well as the print and internet media the story was taken up by the broadcast media (Rete 4's Quatro Grado, Canale 5's Domenica Live and Mattino Cinqu, Italia 1's Tiki Taka and Sport Mediaset, Rai 1's Uno Mattina and Rai 2's La Domenica Sportiva are just some of the programmes that have pushed the murder theory). Here's Rendell describing his own experience of the spread of the story: "The murder theory gained ground to the extent that, on my visits to Italy, people who seemed to have no interest in sport, no knowledge of any of the issues - a woman sitting next to me on a train, a waitress who served me coffee - seemed passionately convinced."
The psychology behind the passionate response of the public to stories about Pantani is hard to explain. The economic argument behind the spread of the story is obvious: it sells. People buy newspapers with it on the front page, they watch TV programmes that discuss it, they click on web reports which deal with. And they even buy books which talk about it (Italia 1's Davide De Zan has been quick to join the fray, with Pantani is Back - Conspiracy, Crime, Reputation). What they don't seem to want to do - or at least what the publishing industry doesn't seem to think they want to do - is to read a book which tells them there is no mystery to Pantani's death, that it was not murder. They - you - don't, in other words, want to read books like Pantani - Debunking the Murder Myth (Rossini's original manuscript was rejected by major publishers and only eventually picked up by a small publishing house, NdA. Rendell's translation is published as a Kindle e-book).
Should you read such a book? There is a part of me that is inclined to say no, a part of me that finds the whole Pantani murder mystery thing distasteful and wishes that everyone would remember that there are real people with real lives that are affected by this story. But that is not going to happen, that much is clear. The murder mystery has already been accepted by too many, too many are already feeling the need to balance comment on Pantani's death by noting that while the inquest said it wasn't murder, others believe it was (such balance, of course, is rarely brought to reports of the murder claims, with no attempt made to show how the claims being made are wrong). For Rossini - who describes the recent claims as being a "stage-managed sequence of coups de théâtre" - those pressing the murder theory "have already achieved their goal: to damage rational argument and erect a popular version which can be handed down to posterity." Which is why a book such as Rossini's Pantani - Debunking the Murder Myth is a necessary corrective. And why you should read it.
Rossini's efforts will not stop people referencing the murder theory. If his 2004 book, Ultimo Chilometro (published by Corriere Romagna and La Stampa), failed to do that - and if Rendell's 2006 Death of Marco Pantani failed to do that - what hope is there for a book like this? It won't stop the credulous reporting of claims that are easily debunked. Rendell, though, is optimistic that it can achieve something:
"By appearing in translation, it aspires to make an impact internationally, and then, with the credibility that it has achieved overseas - or, at least, transmontagna - return to influence public opinion. If it does so, the goals of journalism - to restore sanity to the asylum when the lunatics seem to have taken over - will have been attained."
Pantani - Debunking the Murder Myth is not a happy read. Rossini's account of Pantani's downward spiral is more about misery than mystery and is at times claustrophobic in the way it puts you alongside the falling cyclist. But it is an essential one. Even if you don't believe the murder claims.