The mece of doping in sports is such that athletes and players need to be exceedingly careful over what they allow into their bodies. Unless they are willful cheats out to beat the anti-doping system, sportspersons have the responsibility of keeping thoroughly up-to-date with the latest authorized list of banned substances. If they fail to do so, their medals, reputation and chances of future earnings will all be on the line. This is the precaution tennis champion Maria Sharapova ostensibly failed to take, jeopardizing the marketing empire she has built up over a decade with much drive and business acumen. Her recent announcement of failing a dope test during the Australian Open in January has triggered a storm in the tennis world, with wider ramifications that may impact the Rio Olympic Games later this year. Admitting and taking ‘full responsibility’ for testing positive for the drug meldonium, Sharapova claimed that she has been taking it legally for ten years on doctor’s advice. The drug was supposedly prescribed back in 2006 to treat a heart condition along with indications of diabetes of which the Russian star has a family history. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) put meldonium on the banned list only on January 1 this year, informing sports associations around the world. By her own admission, Sharapova failed to take note of this communication — thereby meaning that she was ‘uware’ of its new banned status.
This ‘negligence’ has proved to be Sharapova’s undoing, leading to her provisiol suspension pending an investigation by the Intertiol Tennis Federation. Chances are that the 28-year old may be banned from tennis for up to four years, effectively finishing her career. WADA officials have warned against any leniency, after Sharapova’s legal team indicated appealing for a short ban or total exemption on the ground of ‘retrospective therapeutic use’. The reality is that top as well as upcoming sportspersons have to keep aside some time to regularly stay abreast with the latest updates on banned substances. The roles played by their doctors, coaches and support staff are critical here. The example of what happened to Scottish skier Alain Baxter shows the pitfalls of not taking due care. After winning a bronze in the 2002 Winter Olympics, Baxter failed a dope test with traces of methamphetmaine showing up in his blood. He was promptly stripped of his medal and handed a three-month ban. It later came to light that the banned substance came from an innocuous Vicks sal spray Baxter had bought to treat a cold — a minor lapse which proved costly. Considering that Sharapova, presently ranked number seventh in women’s tennis, is also the highest-paid female athlete in the world, there was every reason she should have taken abundant care but did not. Forbes has estimated Sharapova’s wealth at $200 million; she earned $30 million from advertising alone last year. After the drug slur, leading sponsors like Nike, Porsche, and TAG Heuer have lost no time in dropping her.
There have been rumors about some other tennis players using meldonium; several athletes tested positive for meldonium during the European Games last year, though it was not banned at the time. Meldonium is prescribed for heart conditions, because it increases blood flow and thereby prevents oxygen deprivation to the heart, brain and other vital organs. It is this property that some unscrupulous athletes have been caught using to enhance performances, WADA experts have discovered. Among them are top Russian athletes like Olympic gold medalist ice dancer Ekateri Bobrova and world champion speed skater Pavel Kulizhnikov. This drug is banned in the US where Sharapova now resides; the Russian anti-doping agency as well as the world tennis association have been sending several communications to athletes and players warning against meldonium use. So the question arises — how did Sharapova miss such explicit warning messages from different sources? Drug cheats like Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and Lance Armstrong have paid for their cynical pursuit of sporting glory. The likes of Diego Marado, Andre Agassi and Michael Phelps have been punished for indiscretions with cocaine, crystal meth and alcohol. Competition and training take huge toll on athletes’ bodies; for the clean athlete, it is a constant struggle to stay fit and compete at the highest level. Whether culpable or not, Maria Sharapova’s predicament is a warning to other sportspersons to verify and cross-check repeatedly the dietary supplements and medications they are taking. It is not something they can plead ignorance about later, what with athletes’ education now figuring high on the agenda of sports associations and anti-doping agencies. It is also something athletes from the Northeast need to look out sharply for, with a few of them likely to make it to the Indian contingent for the 2016 Rio Games. After all, though a sporting minnow, India figured third in a WADA global doping report in 2013, forcing the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) to make dope tests mandatory even in state sporting meets.