Sunday, March 15, 2009

"Il Pirata" passed away in February 2004 but his spirit lives on in our hearts. Take a close look at this photo taken on the ferry to Bellagio as we crossed over to climb to Madonna del Ghisallo after paying our respects the previous day at his memorial on Passo Mortirolo. Heather wrote this when she learned of his death--

It was just one of many slogans scrawled onto the homemade banners that floated above a sea of cheering tifosi gathered atop the Passo Mortirolo. But its truth rang though the chaos and sticks in my head today. It said, “Pirata—farci sognare” make us dream.

This is the precious gift of sports heroes. Marco did make us dream—he made us dream about what humanity could be. He was a shy, elfin, bald guy who showed that ordinary men could fly... When Marco was in the race and the road tilted upwards, even the cynical eyes of wrinkled Italian men sparkled with joyous anticipation. He made anything, everything seem possible for all of us. It’s as if he was a god from Olympus, holding up some magic mirror that reflected the potential in us all.

And so it seemed appropriate, a year or two ago, when I read that he was training alone in those Olympian mountains of Greece. It was right that he escape to those lofty, dreamy, peaks—because the world below had done nothing but drag him down.

A jeep strayed into his high-speed path on a supposedly closed race-course, mangled his leg and nearly took his life. But he rose from those ashes, first to sing poetry on the broadcast of a Giro he should have won but couldn’t take part in, later to pedal perilously close to the heavens, winning the Giro and the Tour, resurrecting our dreams again.

Then a legal scandal pulled him down. Guilty or innocent, he was chosen to bear the brunt of a massive backlash against the drugs that had infested his sport. For every would-be eagle inspired by his soaring, there seemed to be two vultures waiting to feed upon his wounds. And as the wounds multiplied so did the vultures—you could see them pecking at his soul in that last, valiant, return to the Giro.

Well, they, we, finally killed him off. Today Marco was found dead in a hotel. He didn’t die at the peak of his beauty; the modern sports machine had been sucking the life from him for years. Maybe he decided to take the last part himself.

I’d like to imagine that he’s really still in those hills, escaped from the world of big-time sport, soaring among the peaks of Olympian gods. You may say that’s just a dream, but dreams are one of the best things we have. And Marco made us dream.

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