Aldo Sassi, please come back and fix this.
The famed Italian coach and staunch anti-doping advocate took Riccardo Ricco under his wing. It was his last project and perhaps his most challenging one.
Sassi put it as succinctly as possible: “I have a life expectancy that goes as far as July: you’re my last gamble.” If reports out of Italy are true, that gamble has failed terribly.
Initial news stories had Ricco rushed to a hospital with serious kidney problems. That narrative quickly took a hard turn for the worse. In fact, it was the Italian climber’s judgement that was in critical condition.
According to Gazzetta dello Sport, the doctor who treated Riccò told police that Ricco was in a state of shock and said “that he had done a blood transfusion that he had kept in the fridge at home for 25 days.” He was apparently worried about “the poor conservation of the blood he put back in.”
That would be a valid concern — red blood cells must be stored at 7 to 11 degrees fahrenheit — anything higher and cell membranes breakdown, toxins release and trigger infections like septicemia. Suddenly the immune systems goes rogue and destroys the body it’s supposed to protect. In medical terms, bad shit happens.
Sassi, who also coached Ivan Basso and Cadel Evans, knew he was playing with fire by taking Ricco on. “I know that with [Riccò] I would risk my reputation but sometimes you have to step up for an important objective,” said Sassi. “If somebody doesn’t do it and doesn’t believe in this sport, how can things change?” (Sassi is probably up in Heavan playing poker with Fausto Coppi so his reputation isn’t a big priority.)
If the new doping allegations are for real, then it’s the Cobra who was the one unable to change. Sassi was a man of tremendous conviction and hope. He felt he could teach a snake new tricks. Ricco was “important for cycling in both Italy and the world and we can’t afford to lose him,” said Sassi.
Judging by the immediate reactions from the cycling world, Ricco is already persona non grata. Italian National coach Paolo Bettini told Gazzetta della Sport that Ricco had “toyed with death and with himself. It’s his life, but he has offended the family of Aldo Sassi.”
There was no get-well card from the Italian Federation, either. “For his own good, for his family, for the good of cycling, Riccardo Ricco should leave competitive sport, he’s got to get out of the evil tunnel he is stuck in,” said head man Renato Di Rocco. “We are faced with a young guy who is sick inside, intoxicated by false messages, those of fame and success at any cost and by any means – who has lost all sense of the reality of life.”
The reality is that Ricco was lucky he didn’t kill himself with a bag of stale blood. Only quick, skilled intervention by specialists in a Modena hospital saved his life. What’s left of his career is another matter. Should investigators decide that he’s once again guilty of doping, he faces a life-time ban. Upon his return from his suspension this year, Ricco had proclaimed the “Cobra is dead.” While nobody has all the facts right now, it’s easy to chisel that on the tombstone.
ESPN writer Bonnie Ford reacted to the Ricco news with a mantra from her days as a criminal justice reporter. On twitter she wrote: “They don’t charge ’em with being smart.” World time trial champion Fabian Cancellara also questioned Ricco’s judgement. He told L’Equipe: “I think we should send him to the moon. That’s all, because what kind of person doesn’t understand about life. Once an idiot, always an idiot.”