Pantani’s life: a long, hard read

Randall Northam finds Matt Rendell’s The death of Marco Pantani as tough as a Tour de France Alpine stage
Reading this book, you feel like a rubber-necker on a motorway, trying hard not to stare at the car crash but never able to turn your head away completely.

And what a car crash Pantani provided; a helter-skelter descent into drugs – both performance enhancing and recreational – that ended up in his being barricaded in a cheap seaside hotel room, desperately trying to keep out the demons that attacked him, dying a lingering death from an overdose of cocaine.

Having read that Matt Rendell sold his house and moved to Italy in order to write the book, receiving death threats along the way, I wanted to like it. But, while it fascinates at the same time as it repels, I couldn’t.

Whether that’s my fault or the book’s is open to argument but once it was obvious that Pantani, was drug-addled, albeit with psychological problems, I lost sympathy with him. Once I’d decided not to believe the protestations of innocence, all the book became was a catalogue of the unpleasant lifestyle of an unpleasant man, however well-written and well-researched.

Once that happened, it became difficult not to dismiss everything that his manager, doctors and friends, those apologists close to him, said about Pantani. And the attempts to introduce conspiracy theories into the drug busts do not convince.

While Pantani won the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, he wasn’t one of the world’s truly great cyclists and it is clear that while he was talented, he would not have won what he did without drugs. Mind you, that seems to go for a lot of top cyclists.

So I ended up not caring about Pantani. Perhaps that’s because I’m not that interested in cycling. I follow it at the Olympic Games and I occasionally dip into the Tour de France on TV. But I holidayed a stone’s throw from Mount Ventoux the other year and I didn’t visit Tommy Simpson’s shrine.

Maybe my disinterest was because Pantani was Italian and thus a “foreigner”, but then nor am I a xenophobe. Ben Johnson was Canadian, and drug-busted Olympic 100 metres champions are as common as drug-tainted Tour de France winners. But I’d read a book on Johnson as long as it was honest.

Certainly Rendell’s book appears to be that, and it is certainly interesting. Rendell also takes great pains to make sure it is scientifically accurate, though to the poin of disinterest: my senses became dulled after so many references to haematocrit.

The book could have done with a cast of characters; when someone popped up after an absence of several pages, often I found I wasn’t sure who they were.

I also wondered if the book was too long and if it would not have been better as an extended magazine article. It wasn’t until the Acknowledgements, unusually placed at the end, that I found out that’s how it started life, appearing originally in the pages of the Observer Sports Monthly.

This is the only one of the six books shortlisted for the William Hill Sportsbook of the Year award that I wasn’t glad to have read, although it is at least a bona fide sports book whereas two on the list – Preferred Lies and Barefoot Runner – were not quite that.

As a publisher, I have to say that I would have welcomed five of the six books and the one that I would have turned away was Pantani. That might be partly because of the lawyers’ bills I would have had to shell out to check for libel, but also because I don’t think the market in Britain is big enough. Heaven knows, my books are aimed at some pretty small markets.

And if I had published them, at least most of the mistakes in Berlin Games and Barefoot Runner would have been corrected.

Read our other reviews of books featured on the William Hill Sports Book Award shortlist:

Book’s a winner, but two years too late

William Hill’s response

Owens falsely accused in Hitler Games book

Runner sprints away from the facts

Heavyweight tome knocks out book judges

Vialli holds back on the secrets of the dressing room

SJA member Randall Northam runs SportsBooks