Sharapova’s confession shows how elite athletes can get away with doping for years

Had Sharapova not been negligent, she would have probably ended her career scandal-free.
Sharapova’s confession shows how elite athletes can get away with doping for years
Sharapova’s confession shows how elite athletes can get away with doping for years
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By Aditya Ramani

When Maria Sharapova announced via Twitter that she was holding a press conference, many thought that it was to announce her retirement. She had played in just 4 events since Wimbledon last year and none this year except the Australian Open. Her deteriorating shoulder is known about, and she had just recently withdrawn from the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells in California.

But what was actually revealed at the press conference was even more shocking than any potential retirement announcement. Sharapova admitted to failing a drug test at the Australian Open and took full responsibility for the fact that she knowingly took the substance.

The drug in question is Meldonium, which is used clinically to treat angina, myocardial infarction (heart attacks) and chronic heart failure. In healthy humans, it can have the effect of reducing the oxygen requirement and can be useful in endurance events.

Cycling and track and field have been rocked by doping scandals frequently. But tennis has remained largely scar free. Until now.

Although Sharapova is not the first tennis player to fail a dope test (Marin Cilic was banned for 4 months for ‘incautious use of glucose’ back in 2013) it is safe to say that hers is the biggest scandal to hit tennis in many years.

Maria Sharapova is the highest earning female athlete (not just in tennis) in the world. The Russian, who has trained in the USA since she was a kid, is one of the sport’s most marketable stars.

In 2015, she pocketed a staggering $23 million in endorsements alone. She is the brand ambassador for huge brands such as Nike and Porsche and bags a plethora of modelling assignments every year for names such as Vanity Fair. If it isn’t already clear, Sharapova is one of the biggest casualty there can be.

Sharapova is not the only athlete to fail the test for Meldonium this year. Eduard Vorganov, a Russian cyclist who finished 19th in the Tour de France, Abebe Aregawi (a Swede of Ethiopian descent), the 2013 Women’s 1500m champion and a few others have also failed the test. As Sharapova said in her statement in the press conference, the substance, Meldonium, was added to the WADA (World Anti-Doping Authority) banned list on January 1 this year because of “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance.”

The WADA is always on the lookout for hitherto unknown drugs that could have potential performance-enhancement effects. It placed Meldonium on a probation list for one year before banning it earlier this year. They then sent out the updated list to all the athletes. She tested positive for a sample submitted on 26th January, 2016 during the Australian Open.

Sharapova ignored the email from WADA (shockingly negligent from her side) and now has to pay the price for it.

Genuine mistake? It could be. Sharapova repeatedly used the word ‘medicine’ in her statement and explained the underlying conditions which made her use the drug for the last 10 years. It is worth asking, though, why would she need a drug for angina or heart attacks for conditions she describes as ‘bouts of flu’, ‘erratic ECGs’, ‘deficiency of magnesium’ and ‘signs of diabetes’.

Although her use of the drug prior to this year is not under scrutiny (and all her achievements and records will still stand), it begs the question — is successful doping just about being ahead of the WADA?

After all, as this article from The Conversation points out, meldonium may have stayed under the radar for so many years simply because most research on it was in Russian, and the drug is not commonly used outside Eastern Europe.  

And do elite athletes have a better chance of staying ahead just because of the resources at their disposal?

Jennifer Capriati, three-time Grand Slam singles champion, raised these important questions on Twitter after Sharapova’s announcement. It is worth noting that Capriati had issues in her career due to marijuana use and had to enter a drug counselling programme.

Capriati tweeted, “i didn't have the high priced team of drs [sic] that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up”.

Does this incident point to a deeper malaise in the world of professional sports — that elite athletes can use performance enhancing drugs by staying ahead of the system?

Although Sharapova has received praise for accepting full responsibility for her actions, had she not been negligent and ignored that email from WADA, she would have probably ended her career scandal free and as one of the most celebrated and adored athletes of her time. And her use of Meldonium would have forever remained unknown.

Instead today, barely hours after her announcement, she finds herself splitting support, her endorsement deal with Nike suspended and her future looking bleak. But more importantly, she finds her sport subject to even greater scrutiny and her peers under even more pressure.

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