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Why the Sharapova case feels all too familiar to cyclists

Sharapova's positive test for meldonium only makes the line between legal and illegal more blurred.

Josh Cunningham
10 Mar 2016

Maria Sharapova announced on Monday night that, at the Australian Open in January, she returned a positive test result for the drug meldonium. It was a drug that she admitted to having taken for ten years, but the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) had elevated it onto its 'Prohibited List' as of January 1st, and Sharapova - whether or not her claimed innocence is to be believed - was duly befallen by the new legislation.

Meldonium is used primarily as an agent to counteract ischaemia, in conditions such as angina or heart failure, where there is a lack of blood flow to certain parts of the body. Taking meldonium increases blood flow, with the potential to increase exercise capacity; the benefits of which are seeminly clear from an athlete's point of view. The Guardian pointed out that WADA found “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance” by virtue of carrying more oxygen to muscle tissue, and so banned its use. But to even make it onto WADA's consideration list, a substance must meet any two of the following three criteria:

  • It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance.
  • It represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete.
  • It violates the spirit of sport.

The final point on this list could arguably be applied to any performance-enhancing substance, be it protein powder or EPO, which means that the line of legality has been notoriously hard to draw. The use of TUEs, or Therapeutic Use Exemptions, has been a contentious issue in cycling that relates directly to the problem - especially since Chris Froome was revealed to have ridden the 2014 Tour de Romandie while also taking corticosteroids under a TUE - an action Team Sky said was due to a chest infection.

But where the cycling sphere rightly asked the question: If Froome had a chest infection, why was he racing; What should the world now be asking of Sharapova?

Regarding meldonium, Sharapova has cited the flu, diabetes and heart problems as her reasoning for taking the drug. Of course it's only the latter that taking meldonium can reportedly offer any benefit towards, but if she does have a health issue, should she not have competed under a TUE? 

Wasn't that undercover alliance between professionals once known in cycling as Omerta?

Apparently not, as Sharapova claims she didn't even realise it had been upgraded to the Prohibited List in the first place. Of that, Ex-WADA chief Dick Pound had this to say when talking to the BBC: 'All the tennis players were given notification of it and she has a medical team somewhere. That is reckless beyond description.'

Former tennis pro Jenifer Capriati was equally as scathing: 'So for 10 years you've been able to play with a now banned substance?' she said on Twitter. 'That's a career's worth of time. I didn't have the high priced team of doctors that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up.' 

But there were some who were less inclined to cut the grass from beneath Sharapova. 'I feel for her with all that's happening and I just hope she gets out of this stronger,' revealed Novak Djokovic. Another former tennis pro, Chris Evert, said: 'Whether it's shock or whether they don't want to become involved or have an opinion about it, it's surprising that not a lot of players have shown their support for her.'

Is it? Wasn't that undercover alliance between professionals once known in cycling as Omerta?

'I feel sorry for her but, at the same time, there is no excuse for it because, at the end of the day, you are responsible for everything you put in your body,' Sir Bradley Wiggins told Sky News. 'British Cycling here, they are really on the ball, in terms of [telling the riders of] things that have been changed.'

Of course, someone else that came unstuck with the new regulations was Katusha's Eduard Vorganov, a compatriot of Sharapova who also tested positive for meldonium in January. Together they are part of a growing list of athletes from former Eastern Bloc nations that are returning adverse tests for the drug, which stands to reason given that it is only distributed in certain Baltic countries as well as Russia, and unapproved for use in both the US and Europe. In fact, since Sharapova's postive seven more Russian athletes have tested positive for the drug.

But regardless of whether in Sharapova's case, you fall foul of that legal line, or you manage to stay ahead of it, there is still a question hanging over the third bullet on WADA's aforementioned Prohibited List criteria; is staying one step ahead of the authorities violating, or epitomising, the spirit of sport?

This is the murky situation that will always accompany top level sport, and it doesn't look like it will change any time soon.  

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