How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

ON the face of it, a Russian sports star failing a drugs test shouldn’t really be headline news. But all the assembled sporting media were shocked by the admission from Maria Sharapova that at this year’s Australian Open, she had failed a drugs test for meldonium, a drug she had been taking since 2006 for health reasons, but which was only banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) from January 1 this year.

Sharapova, 28, has already started losing sponsorship, with Nike and Porsche suspending the Russian star until further investigations have concluded. The International Tennis Federation (ITF) have provisionally suspended her from March 12, with anything up to a four-year ban possible, which would almost certainly end the career of the five-time major winner.

Sharapova’s defence is centred around her being unaware that meldonium was a banned drug, despite receiving an email from WADA before Christmas, which told all athletes which drugs were being added to the banned list. Yet somehow, herself and all her coaching team (who are likely to have received the same memo) failed to notice this, leading to the failed drugs test in late January. But if the drug is medicinal, why has it been banned?

Although the drug is used primarily to treat heart issues or diabetes, studies have found it to have some effect on the endurance of whoever takes it, as it can help increase the levels of oxygen carried by the blood, as well as the rate of recovery after exercise. It is also an uncommon drug, not seen in the UK or the USA, where it isn’t licensed for prescription. However, in Eastern European countries such as Latvia (where it is produced), it is much more widely available.

As with any doping case involving Russian sports stars, there is always a suspicion of whether the person was acting on their own, or whether they were supported by their relevant federations. Russia was so worried about the possibility of athletes falling victim to the updated doping list that Rusada, Russia’s anti-doping body, messaged all registered athletes, coaches and support staff specifically about meldonium, to try and avoid any more controversy before the Olympics. It seems this warning fell on deaf ears with both Sharapova and road cyclist Eduard Vorganov, who also failed a test in January.

It is highly unlikely that Sharapova, or someone in her team, wasn’t aware of the enhancing effects of this drug. It is also unlikely that she was the only tennis player taking the drug during the period that it was legal. But by continuing to take the drug, she has been reckless, and may be counting the cost for years to come.

Luke Etheridge

Featured Image: The Independent 

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