You are Marco Pantani. It is 1999, and you are winning the Giro d’Italia, the race you dreamed of winning as a teenager flogging a borrowed bike around the countryside outside Cesenatico. You’ve won four stages. You’re way ahead on GC, and you’re holed up in the team hotel, tired, mentally drained, but, on some level, deeply satisfied with the legacy you’re creating for yourself in the sport you love.
Then you’re out the side door into the bright sunlight, mobbed by press, hounded for an explanation for the impossibly high hematocrit level your tests show. You’re disqualified. You’re shamed. You are no longer a legend, but a pariah.
This is what professionals might call a “precipitating event.” In your life it might be a divorce, the loss of a job, the death of a child. In pro cycling, a doping positive can be the death of your career, the event that pushes you over the edge.
Charlie, the addictions counselor I see every Friday morning, tells me that he sees what’s called “dual diagnosis,” i.e. clinical depression AND addiction, so much that he’s not convinced the two can be separated. Depression can lead to addiction. Addiction can lead to depression. They are the chicken and egg, egg and chicken.
The vast majority of those reading these words will know how Marco Pantani’s life turned out. After his expulsion from the Giro he made a few faltering attempts at comeback, but eventually succumbed to cocaine addiction, dying alone in a hotel room in 2004.
Addiction is a disease, progressive and fatal if untreated.
Last week, in a piece entitled “Love for the Doper,” I connected the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) with the addiction to illicit drugs, the descent into a mental state that convinces you that you need the drugs to go on. At the time, Padraig (our host and proprietor here at RKP) asked me how I would explain the jump that many athletes who use PEDs make to abusing illicit drugs. The recent death of Frank Vandenbroucke, as well as the passing of Marco Pantani, are but two examples of this jump.
And I would say that the answer lies somewhere at the nexus of humiliation, shame, loneliness and the tendency toward extreme behaviors, all of these factors combined with a precipitating event. To use Pantani as an example, though Vandenbroucke’s particulars are fairly similar, you have a unique character type, a self-described loner, a guy who nearly everyone who knew him would call “socially awkward, who also happens to be an elite athlete, an occupation more or less defined by the extremity of the behavior necessary to achieve success. You take this awkward, lonely and very probably depressed guy, who is already completely inured to suffering, and you heap on top a generous serving of humiliation.
Now, that humiliation validates an underlying shame that the guy feels, because he’s doping. He becomes even more depressed. Up to that point he was able to offset the shame and depression with the thrill of victory and adulation. Later, Pantani and Vandenbroucke made an effort to find some equilibrium by turning to the one thing that made them feel better, the one thing that delivered the thrill and muted the shame, illicit drugs.
What was once just a party drug, readily available to them as wealthy celebrities, takes on a new role (Are you listening Tom Boonen?). It moves itself front and center. Forced to abandon the PEDs, the rider sticks with the illicit drugs, substituting the mental effects of one for the mental effects of the other. The central conceit of the addict’s mindset is that he can’t do without the drugs that are actually tearing him apart. Compounding the problem is that the rider believes he can’t make a living without riding and can’t ride without drugs of one sort or the other. It’s a Catch-22 that turned Pantani and Vandenbroucke into corpses in hotel rooms, the saddest possible ending for an athlete in our sport.
To be sure, not every rider involved with PEDs will make the jump to illicit drugs, but a very real link exists between the use of PEDs and depression, and then between depression and the use of illicit drugs. Think not only of Pantani and Vandenbroucke, but also of Richard Virenque, if Willy Voet is to be believed, and Jan Ulrich.
Every time I hear the name of another convicted doper I try to stifle my instinct to judge. Riders don’t make bad decisions maliciously. They slip a little, and then a little more, and day after day, week after week, year after year, they become something they never meant to be. They can make deals with the devil that take them to the very top of the sport, and then one event, one vial of blood spun down in a centrifuge, one tainted jar of piss, pushes them off the edge.
Some don’t make it back.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International