By Chris de Waard – @TennisPurist
Originally posted at: http://tennispurist.blogspot.com.au/2016/03/meldonium-maria.html
Like most people in the tennis world, I was shocked when Maria Sharapova announced she tested positive for the obscure heart medication meldonium. Although my shock came from a different angle than you would hear from most. I was shocked someone managed to test positive in tennis, a sport in which doping controls are effectively nonexistent. Athletes are always years ahead of the testers, and with modern highly effective techniques like microdosing it’s virtually impossible to catch them. Especially if you conduct tests as infrequently and ineffectively as the ITF does, while also knowing microdoses can become undetectable after just a couple of hours. The average top player in tennis roughly gets tested once every month. There is also no other sport in which using doping is so financially rewarding as in tennis. The ITF might as well give up on testing altogether and donate the $4 million yearly anti-doping budget to charity.
The only way to actually catch players would be to retest old samples after a couple of years, when the anti-doping agencies have caught up with the athletes. The ITF doesn’t do this, which tells enough about their unwillingness to actually do something about the problem. And why would they? Every catch they make hurts them financially, an utterly bizarre and corruptible situation when you have a self-regulating sports organization. The only healthy solution would be to have a completely independent organization take control of the testing. If most tennis journalists actually did their jobs and weren’t occupied with keeping tennis’ omerta of ”see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” alive, there would have been many questions about this already. As of today, I have never seen a journalist ask the ITF why they don’t retest old samples. This would have probably led to situations similar to when ATP boss Chris Kermode was grilled about not having an independent anti-corruption organization during a recent match-fixing hearing, leaving him gasping for air.
Having said that, I firmly believe the only reasons Sharapova tested positive are negligence and stupidity, something that should never happen when you have a net worth of $200 million and an entire team around you, tasked with managing every single little detail of your career. She could have created some goodwill with the general public by simply telling the truth at her press conference, but she failed to do so. Instead, she blatantly lied. Sharapova said she has been using meldonium since 2006 to treat a heart disease and for prevention of diabetes, which runs in her family. Naturally, it requires a firm suspension of disbelief to believe a top athlete has a heart disease and also managed to reach the absolute top of her sport despite it. On top of that, you wouldn’t treat a heart disease with an obscure Latvian medication, which isn’t even approved in your country of residence, the United States. There are a lot of better medications to treat that. Even a Russian family doctor, from which Sharapova claims to have received the meldonium prescription, wouldn’t do that. The anti-diabetic part of Sharapova’s story is even less believable. One research in 2011, five years after Sharapova started taking meldonium, showed some positive effects on rats, nothing more.
According to Sharapova her error was a failure to read the new prohibited substances list of the World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA, to which meldonium was added per January 1st of 2016. She allegedly also missed the multiple announcements that were sent to her personally, by email. WADA banned meldonium after suspicions the substance was abused on a big scale by primarily Russian athletes. Russia has a long-standing love affair with the substance, with the Soviet Union already giving it to their soldiers in the eighties, aiming to increase their endurance and performance. The ban on meldonium seems to be politically motivated, falling together with a wider crackdown on doping in Russian sports. In 2015 meldonium was found in the system of 17% of Russian athletes, while globally this number was 2.2%. Of course, this makes the claim of Sharapova that she used it for health reasons all the more ridiculous. The notion that Russian athletes are the most sickly demographic on the planet is the world upside down. The harshly strict way in which the meldonium ban was enforced knew immediate success for WADA, as of today more than one hundred athletes have tested positive for the substance in 2016, the majority of which Russian.
The aim of this all seems to be to pin the doping problem in sports on Russia, as tennis has tried with regards to match-fixing by pinning it on Italians. Yet another big match-fixing scandal hit the sport yesterday, with Italian information getting released that makes it clear the Tennis Integrity Unit ignored evidence that implicated 37 players in match-fixing, of which 29 non-Italian. However, the TIU didn’t ignore everything about the case. They did want to look into the Italian players. Another article operates on less convincing evidence, but would confirm this intention of the TIU to pin the match-fixing problem solely on Italians. Allegedly the TIU covered up 95 gambling players, including one or two big names, while throwing five Italians under the bus. One of them was Alessio di Mauro, who in 2007 received a nine-month ban and $60,000 fine for betting on tennis matches. None of his 120 bets exceeded the $22 mark.
Doping and match-fixing are both global problems, using one country as a scapegoat is despicable. However, the facts remains that Sharapova was in the wrong and deserves be punished. She may have been in violation of the anti-doping rules for only a short time, but for me she has been morally in the wrong for the full ten years. When you take a heart medication for performance enhancing reasons you are a cheater in my book, no matter the technical legality. And she hasn’t been the only one. While the majority of the tennis world still have their heads comfortably buried in the sand, the former boss of WADA, Dick Pound, announced that lots of tennis players were using meldonium. It’s getting harder and harder for tennis authorities to maintain their holy doctrine of corruption and cover-ups.