The Camorra organised crime syndicate had a blood sample from the late Marco Pantani switched to have him ejected from the 1999 Giro d’Italia and head off potentially huge gambling losses.
That’s the finding of an investigation into the case by a public prosecutor reported in the Italian media today, although no criminal charges can be brought against any persons involved due to a statute of limitations.
The probe was launched by magistrates in Forli in Pantani’s home region of Emilia-Romagna in 2014, partly based on testimony provided by high-profile criminal Renato Vallanzasca.
He wrote in his autobiography that he had been told by a fellow prisoner in a jail in Milan in May 1999 to bet his life savings on Pantani’s rivals and that the rider – the defending champion and leading the race after winning the previous two mountain stages – would not finish it.
The Camorra reportedly stood to lose billions of Lire in illegal gambling on the race if the hugely popular Pantani won.
They apparently decided to take matters into their own hands by ensuring he would be disqualified by having his blood samples switched.
That would also bring them a windfall, in the shape of money from losing bets gambled on a Pantani victory.
Vallanzasca was interviewed by a magistrate at the time, but for fear of reprisals from the Camorra, would not reveal the identity of the man in question, leaving the trail cold but the Forli magistrates.
However, the Forli public prosecutor’s office reopened the case after believing they had found out who the man in question was.
Today, the Italia 1 TV programme Studio Sport has published a transcript of a telephone conversation between the man who had been Vallanzasca’s cellmate in 1999, in which he confirmed to a family member that he had been interviewed by investigators from Forli.
Asked if Vallasnzasca’s allegations were true, the man repeated the word “Sì” – “Yes” – five times.
According to reports on outlets including La Gazzetta dello Sport, Sergio Sottani, the state prosecutor heading the investigation, has concluded that “A Camorra family threatened a doctor to compel him to alter the test results to cause Pantani to be outside the rules.”
The Forli investigation addressed allegations of criminal association for the purpose of fraud and sporting fraud surrounding the race 17 years ago from which the Mercatone Uno rider was expelled at Madonna di Campiglio ahead of the penultimate stage.
No test existed at the time for EPO with the UCI instead stipulating under a rule introduced two years earlier that if a rider’s haematocritic level exceeded 50 per cent, he had to take a two-week break from racing.
Tested on the eve of the last but one stage and with victory in his grasp, Pantani returned a reading of 52 per cent. The following morning, the shock news broke that he had been thrown off the race.
He would never be sanctioned, but his mother Tonina later said that “Without Campiglio, there would have been no Rimini,” referring to his death five years later in a hotel room in the Adriatic resort.
Officially, the cause of death was given as cocaine poising, with one hypothesis being that he was forced by persons unknown to take a lethal quantity of the drug, although the more generally accepted verion of events is that he was the victim of a self-administered overdose.
Pantani’s mother, who has always maintained that he did not take performance enhancing drugs and that he was murdered – a 2013 French Senate investigation into the 1998 Tour de France, which he won, concluded that he had used EPO in that race – said that today’s news vindicated her son.
"Finally someone has managed to some good work,” she said. “It won’t give me Marco back, but it will give him back his dignity.
“These words hurt me,” she added. “They confirm what Marco always said – ‘they cheated me’. He never accepted it.”
While the criminal aspect of the case is time-barred, the Pantani family and their lawyers are now reportedly considering what, if any, redress they may have under civil and sports law.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.