Thoughts on Pantani: Accidental Death of a Cyclist

Pantani: Accidental Death of a Cyclist

I just finished watching this movie, and I have to say it was one of the most fair and respectful treatments I have ever seen of doping in professional cycling. The movie starts with Pantani getting his first bicycle at a young age, catching the thrill of competition, which he was obviously gifted for, and eventually arriving at the top of the professional sport by winning both the Giro and the Tour in the same year.

Unfortunately, this victory came at a steep price, because pro cycling was very corrupt at this time.  Perhaps it still is. Perhaps it always was.  Perhaps professional sports is just that way.  But, in this movie, you can try to answer those unanswerable questions for yourself as you see the interviews, watch the clips, and listen to those who were close to Pantani both in professional sports and out.  

I think there was something significant about someone (Greg Lemond?) saying that cycling is a haven for those who feel pain deeply, because you can be isolated on the bike and use the physical suffering to quell the emotional pain.  I’m sure endurance athletes have discovered relief from the inner demons by dancing with the physical suffering for hours on end.

There was another point in the movie that caught my attention:  when Marco first joined a professional team in Italy, it was a turning point for him.  I believe he told his mother, “I have joined the Mafia.”  It was obvious that the rules had changed from amateur sports competition to professional competition, and that there would be a price to be paid for big money.  You could have the money and the fame and the exaltation, but you needed to deliver and perform, and that might not just be about winning.  There might be more than just winning in order to “deliver.”

So, if there are all these huge interests in sports–investors, gamblers, businesses, endorsements, and so forth–what is it that makes a guy like Pantani so valuable to them?  How could he possibly threaten them?  Well, if the game is rigged somehow, and it gets out that the game is rigged, then couldn’t that threaten the game itself?  Isn’t that like killing the cash cow in the first place?  If you have a magic bean stalk, don’t you want to keep it a secret that it’s magic?  Or a pot of gold that keeps replenishing itself?  Well, it seems to me that if you are too good, or perform too well, it raises suspicion, and people are going to wonder if the game is rigged, and why are they investing their money in this rigged game?  I think the movie identifies some times where Pantani threatened these interests.  He won too much.  He was too strong.  He could be a threat.

In retrospect, he was one of the best of a generation of doping cyclists.  If sport had been honest, they would have had a “red” jersey and just let the dopers compete against each other.  But since there wasn’t a good test for identifying EPO users then, there was nothing to catch cheating riders.  From what i understand, the tests they did administer only measured certain hemacrit ratios that might identify someone who could have used EPO.  It was not fool proof certainty that you were using EPO.  Your hemacrit was above the allowable 50% threshold, so you were out of the Tour, or Giro, as Marco was in, was it 2002?   I don’t remember.  I didn’t really start watching until 2004.

What gets me is how he seemed to need the wins.  He needed to humiliate other riders, and if that didn’t seem to work, he seemed to feel humiliated himself.  So when he was expelled from the Giro, that was the worst public humiliation imaginable for him.  There probably could be no greater shame.  And winning on the top of Alp Du ‘Ez  (or however you spell that) was the greatest validation. Cases like Pantani’s seem to prove what Brene Brown says about shame resilience.  She has been a leading shame researcher for her career, and she has made integral connections between high levels of shame (low shame resilience) and addiction, crime, violence, isolation, suicide, and lots of bad stuff.  And I think you can see that in Pantani’s life.  Validation was why Pantani needed the win.  Why was validation so important?  It made the pain go away like nothing else.  Validation was THE drug.  There was no denying he was a gifted cyclist, with or without EPO.  But to prove that, he would need EPO, because that’s what his rivals were using.  To a normal person, this whole scenario would seem weird and simply make you ask, why would you do pro cycling at all?  Couldn’t you get the same validation as an amateur?  No way.  As a pro, you can become a national hero.  And Pantani did.  

Now that he had tasted validation at that level, how could he ever be an amateur again? Of course, the real addiction was to the external validation.  And I think Brene Brown would say that if Pantani had been able to learn internal validation instead, he might have extracted himself from the eventual crashing failure and humiliation his life became.  It was a very sad story, since he basically died of a drug overdose on the floor of a very nice hotel suite bathroom.   He broke the hearts of millions.  And I was struck at how responsible they felt for his death.  In a rather real way, I suppose anyone who patronizes professional sport could feel this emotion.  But I think that’s because we’d rather not know whether the game is really rigged or not.  Because it’s such a fun game just the way it is.  Except when it’s not, and Pantani is perhaps the clearest example of when sport ends very badly.  There are many, many other sad stories.  There have been hundreds of deaths linked to EPO in professional sports.   Athletes in their prime would die in their sleep because their blood would not circulate properly when their heart rates got too low.  I guess those athletes found the external validation from their victories worth the risks also.

So what’s the answer?  Well, in a perfect world, we would all be too incorruptible to enjoy a corruptible sport.  We would care whether the sport was corrupted or not.  We would care about the athletes as human beings.  And we would care about ourselves.  But most of us don’t enjoy sports of our own more than we enjoy watching others do sports on TV.  The superstars become our celebrities, and we expect them to live through them vicariously.  It’s more interesting to watch their victories on Alp Du Ez than for us to dust the cobwebs off our bikes and ride up the neighborhood hill. There’s probably a reason why the cameras almost never show us the “groupetto” on the long climbs.  (That’s the group of riders who are substantially slower than the peleton; these riders are not climbers.  They’re just trying to make the time cut-off so they can stay in the tour.)  The reason why we never see the groupetto is that it’s too much like how we actually climb in real life.  We suffer, most of us.  And who wants to be reminded how much it hurts to climb at our own glaical pace?  It’s much more entertaining to fantasize and watch how Pantani climbs.  Fantasizing that you’re climbing like Pantani, now that’s quite a fantasy!  Climbing like I do, well, that’s not such a sweet fantasy.  Not much entertainment value there.  Don’t need to watch TV or see commercials for that.

I guess cycling is kind of like a beauty pageant: it takes a lot for anyone to get there in the first place, but we fantasize about number 1.  And maybe therein lies the rub.  Why is it not as fun to fantasize about being the best us possible instead?  Why fantasize about being someone else?  Why is it so easy to treat someone on TV as a virtual object, even if we treat ourselves as a virtual object in the same exchange?  If I ever find out, I’ll let you know.

It’s fun to fantasize.  Most of us cannot help ourselves.  Pantani had a chance to live out a huge fantasy in real life.  I cannot begrudge him for doing that.  But he’s also a cautionary tale: beware addictive allure of external validation.  Do your emotional homework.  Or else it could cost you big time.

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