Erythropoietin is a hormone produced by the body in reaction to low blood oxygen levels. It increases the number of red blood cells. An engineered version of the hormone - known as r-EPO - was devised in the 198os. Intended for medical use, it became very popular among sportsmen, especially cyclists, because it had the effect of massively enhancing the oxygen-carrying capacity of their blood. The improvement in the performance of a "blood-doped" cyclist was spectacular.
The downside is the thickness of the doped blood and the strain that puts on the heart. Cyclists would go to sleep with monitors that woke them up if their heart rate dropped dangerously low. They would immediately rise and pedal furiously on a bike on rollers in their bedroom to keep the heavy blood circulating. A large number of professional cyclists have died of heart attacks - r-EPO has not been implicated with any certainty, but the evidence is highly suggestive. On the other hand, there have been periods - maybe now even - when all professional cyclists have been doped.
"Nothing," observes Matt Rendell of the effect of such technology on sport, "is any longer as it seems."
Sporting heroes may not be up there because they are the best or the bravest, but because they happen to have bodies that take up the latest drug most effectively. What, then, are we applauding? The body? The drug? The pharmaceutical companies? That is the question Rendell is asking himself in writing this strange but ultimately impressive book.
I say "ultimately" because, both stylistically and intellectually, this is a book of two halves. The first half - well, more like the first third - is, frankly, hard-going. Rendell, like almost all sportswriters, is prone to deadly overwriting when he doesn't have much to say. "There, encoded in Cenni's grief, are the horizons Marco's biography must confront . . . " is fairly typical of the sort of thing one has to put up with before he gets into his stride. There's also too much "poetic" writing and pointless scene-setting. One sentence, beginning "With a smile as warm as Marco's, and a wag of the tail, Giorgio's dog Rocky follows us next door . . . ", almost had me returning the book with a stiff note. Furthermore, you have to be pretty excited about the sport of cycling to plough through the descriptions of the early career and races of Marco Pantani with any enthusiasm.
But luckily - for the reader at least - Pantani didn't have much of a career. He burned brightly as the biggest star in cycling for a few years be-fore becoming mired in doping scandals and, at the age of 34, dying of a cocaine overdose in an Italian hotel.
Superficially, he appears to be a familiar type of sporting self-destructor. Like George Best, Diego Maradona, Alex "Hurricane" Higgins, and so on, he was prodigiously gifted; like them, he couldn't handle success and its aftermath. But if Rendell is right (and the evidence does seem conclusive), then, unlike them, he was a pharmaceutical creation almost from the beginning. He was "cycling's greatest cheat".
It is the pursuit of this revelation that makes the latter part of the book so readable. It plainly wasn't easy. Although Pantani had been officially found out, there had been a degree of ambivalence about the findings and multiple denials from his own people. Furthermore, the findings only applied to a very limited time frame. What Rendell shows, by unearthing blood tests from several stages of his career, is that he was almost certainly on r-EPO from the moment he was spotted.
Of course, Pantani himself denied all this. And, just like Hurricane Higgins, he became paranoid that he was being deliberately persecuted, that the fault lay with the sport, not with him - that, in fact, he was bigger than the sport. "But I am Italian cycling," he insists at one point.
And yet, perhaps, Pantani's paranoia was more soundly based than that of Higgins. His real anguish almost certainly arose not from some deluded conviction that he was innocent, but rather from the question why, if just about everybody was doped, he was being singled out.
But the particular poignancy of this story lies in the way Pantani was seized upon as a national hero in Italy, at a time when that country's people and politicians seemed to require one. In 1998, for example, there was a "Pantani Day" in his home town when Romano Prodi, the prime minister, addressed the crowds.
"In these times when there is so much talk of doping, Marco is liked because he embodies the ideal of the healthy, true sportsman . . ."
Parallel to this lies the obvious hurt of Rendell himself. He knew Pantani and he loves cycling. But, in this story, he has to contemplate the utter debauching of the sport. Doubtless some will claim that it has been cleaned up after the scandals surrounding Pantani and others, but, as Rendell sees, there is no way of knowing. For a long time, there were perfectly adequate ways of concealing r-EPO doping and there may now be new ways or new drug cocktails of which we know nothing. Anti-doping investigators will always be one step behind. Anyway, all of that is beside the point. The really profound disappointment, the true poignancy, is that sport stars and their people want to rig the game - that, given the chance, they will cheat. The countervailing ethos of fair play is dead, and the fans are betrayed.
And so we must watch, as Rendell says, in a condition of permanent mistrust. "The cost of seeing the world through this filter of scepticism may be that we can no longer abandon ourselves to the emotions of the crowd." Instead, alone with our doubts, we applaud the dubious hero and wait gloomily for the doctors to work out how he did it. Technology has killed sport.
Bryan Appleyard is writing a book about immortality