Editorial: Maria Sharapova and a poser for sport

Maria
Photo: @MariaSharapova

Two months after the tennis world was rocked by match-fixing allegations, Maria Sharapova, a five-time Grand Slam champion and the highest-paid female athlete, dropped a bombshell when she admitted to testing positive for the recently prohibited drug meldonium at the Australian Open. She has been provisionally suspended from March 12. The drug was added to the Prohibited List of 2016 on January 1 after being on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) monitoring list in 2015. The Agency banned the substance because of “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance”. According to WADA, a substance is placed in the prohibited list if it enhances performance, poses a threat to health, or violates the spirit of sport. In this case, by aiding the circulation of oxygen through increased blood flow, the medication (primarily meant to treat serious heart problems) enhances performance, thus violating the spirit of sport. The effect of the drug is similar to other banned substances — autogenous and allogeneic blood transfusion for extra doses of red cells and the erythropoietin hormone to produce more red blood cells to increase oxygen supply to muscles, thereby enhancing endurance. Since the drug was banned on January 1, 2016, the titles Sharapova won during her career will not be taken back. Nonetheless, by netting one of the biggest stars, the tennis anti-doping programme has at once brought to an end the debate on whether it has been soft on tennis players; two other tennis players were caught as recently as in 2013.

While some may be inclined to consider Sharapova’s an “honest mistake”, as she “did not know” that the mildronate medication that she had been taking for the last 10 years is also known as meldonium, it raises a few questions. Sharapova has been residing in Florida since 1994, and it is unclear how she gained access to the drug, as it is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. She is still to adequately explain the medical requirements that necessitated its consumption for a decade, as according to the company that manufactures the drug, the treatment course may “vary from four to six weeks” and it can be “repeated twice or thrice a year”. But she can seek a retroactive therapeutic use exemption by proving the merit of her case. Whether or not she enjoyed the performance-enhancing benefits of the drug during the last decade, it once again underlines the fact that scientific evidence-gathering and testing methods are slow to catch up with the increased use of performance-enhancing substances. This case should serve as a reminder for India too to clean up its act. While India may not be producing many world-class athletes and sportspersons, it ranks very high in terms of the number of cheats. According to a 2013 WADA report, with 91 dope offenders, India is ranked third, behind Russia and Turkey. Russia had 212 persons testing positive for prohibited substances, while Turkey had 155.

Published in The Hindu on March 10, 2016

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