In 1998, Italian professional cyclist Marco Pantani was on top of the world. The diminutive climber had reached a figurative mountaintop in his sport, becoming the seventh cyclist ever to win both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France — the two most prestigious Grand Tours — in a single year. Pantani won with the sort of style and panache expected of a man nicknamed Il Pirata (the Pirate) and had skyrocketed himself into the company of cycling legends, of whom only a handful had ever equaled his feat.
The little rider from Cesena became the most celebrated athlete in his country, returning home to parades, roaring crowds and above all, unmatched expectations. Winning a Grand Tour double can make a rider’s career, but with it comes the added pressure of comparisons to legends like Bernard Hinault and the greatest champion of all, Eddy Merckx.
By 1999, Pantani had been convicted of doping, kicked out of that year’s Giro and suspended from competition. From that point onward, Il Pirata was a shell of his former self, while being disgraced in the eyes of the public and his competitors. Soon after his suspension, Pantani’s career collapsed. La Repubblica, a popular Italian newspaper, published an article linking Il Pirata to a massive doping scandal centered on the distribution of erythropoietin, a dangerous performance-enhancing drug, to a large number of Italian professional athletes. In 2004, Pantani died of a cocaine overdose, his body found alone in a hotel room.
The Pirate had pushed himself overboard, his greatness only contributing to the pressure placed upon him to be greater. Drugs like EPO offered a tantalizing boost to an already exceptional rider, but brought with them not only health risks but career risks as well. The desire to succeed drove Pantani beyond his own capabilities, leading to a collapse that brought drugs, depression and ultimately death.
Athletes, especially the great ones, succeed in part because of a desire to push themselves to the limit, even when it threatens their safety or careers. Think of how many professional football players refuse to leave the field when injured, or how boxers simply refuse to go down after several hard blows to the face. A central danger of athletics, or any field, appears when one begins to value victory or achievement more than one’s own health and well-being.
In many ways, it is easy to equate the difficulties faced by athletes like Pantani to the lives of students here at Yale. While it is likely that none of us will ever win a Grand Tour, we are equally victims of our own success. The self-motivation that has allowed many of us to thrive at Yale is also what keeps so many students from being able to compartmentalize their stress, enjoy the present rather than obsess over the future, and to simply stop and smell the roses. Achievement as an athlete, student or individual shouldn’t come at the price of one’s health, and it doesn’t have to threaten one’s mental well-being either.
Though my rhetoric might sound a bit idealistic, especially to the most driven and hard-working members of our community, believe me when I say that your work at Yale is not as important as you are. Pantani learned a lesson about the pressure to rise, and every one of us can benefit from his tragic example. Tying your self-worth to your career, passion or triumphs might make you feel incredible when things are going well, but there will be bumps in the road and when those come, we should weather them by realizing that we have intrinsic value, independent of our achievements. Cycling didn’t define Pantani, and Yale doesn’t define us.
In any student’s own pursuit of greatness, I would encourage him or her to stop and rest along the way. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my life is that the run to success is a marathon not a sprint. If you’re not willing to detach yourself from your work, sport or academics, it will absolutely impact your well-being, mental health and happiness. Pantani’s value as a person wasn’t defined by whether he became the next Eddy Merckx; it was defined by his own character as an individual and bolstered by the love of the friends and family he surrounded himself with.
Like Margaret Mitchell said in “Gone with the Wind,” “Tomorrow is another day.” There are many opportunities for greatness. Above all, neither the most incredible victories nor most abject failures define a person. Had Pantani taken that lesson to heart, cycling may not have lost one of its most charismatic protagonists.
Though it may sound cliche, following one’s passions and refusing to be paralyzed by a fear of failure will lead to success further down the road. A legacy is something one builds for oneself, not something defined by Grand Tour wins, a Phi Beta Kappa membership or a degree. We remember Pantani for his tragic death more so than for his remarkable success and that, to me, is more than enough reason to take a moment out of my day, stop and breathe.
Marc Cugnon is a junior in
Calhoun College. Contact him at