In March 2016, Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova revealed that she had tested positive to a banned substance – Meldonium.
This drug, which she described as her “medicine”, had been used legitimately by Sharapova for years. It was added to WADA’s Prohibited List in January 2016, the assumption being this substance had performance-enhancing attributes that went beyond its medical purpose.
In June 2016, Sharapova was given a two-year ban by an independent tribunal appointed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF); she then announced that an appeal would be submitted to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Public opinion was divided as to the nature and extent of Sharapova’s culpability, though there was a widely held view that some level of ban was appropriate. Among the sternest critics was Dick Pound, the inaugural president of WADA, who argued Sharapova and her support team had been “reckless beyond description”.
In October 2016, CAS affirmed a ban for Sharapova, but reduced the length of that penalty from 24 months down to 15 months. For Sharapova, this represented something of a reputational victory, especially with this final statement from CAS:
The panel wishes to point out that the case it heard, and the award it renders, was not about an athlete who cheated. It was only about the degree of fault that can be imputed to a player for her failure to make sure that the substance contained in a product she had been legally taking over a long period, and for most of the time on the basis of a doctor’s prescription, remained in compliance.
From the perspective of Head, a tennis equipment manufacturer and major sponsor of Sharapova, WADA was culpable, perhaps even reckless. The company CEO, John Eliasch, released a statement criticising the anti-doping body for banning a substance it had assumed had peformance-enhancing effects, but failed to conduct the research to prove it.
CAS, while not ruling on WADA’s decision to make Meldonium a banned substance, was nonetheless critical of communication protocols used to warn athletes. It concluded:
… no specific warning had been issued by the relevant organizations (WADA, ITF or WTA) as to the change in the status of Meldonium (the ingredient of Mildronate). In that respect, the panel notes that anti-doping organizations should have to take reasonable steps to provide notice to athletes of significant changes to the prohibited list, such as the addition of a substance, including its brand names.
Eliasch’s Sharapova statement included a swipe at WADA about the volume of athletes who are given therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) to take long-established banned substances. This point stemmed from confidential documentation stolen by the (presumably Russian-based) hacking group “Fancy Bears”.
While the TUEs appear, overall, to be legitimate in terms of meeting WADA’s protocols, the information has raised questions about whether the system is being “gamed” by athletes pursuing a performance edge in the guise of addressing a medical condition.
This was certainly the view WADA had about Meldonium. While it accepted the drug had therapeutic purposes, its widespread use among athletes from Eastern Europe (where the substance was produced) had alarmed anti-doping authorities. So many “healthy” athletes supposedly needed this medicine.
Fancy Bears, albeit with different motives and scurrilous methods, has now prompted debate about the role of physicians in providing TUEs for athletes seeking to flout anti-doping rules – something one leading analyst has described as a “crisis”.
Tennis’ fault line
For Sharapova, the length of penalty was a key issue. She expressed bewilderment that the ITF initially sought the maximum ban of four years.
Mike Fish, a tennis writer with ESPN, contends this was an opportunity – however awkward – for the ITF to show a “tough-on-drugs” stance in a high-profile case. He argues that professional tennis’s reputation for being drug-free:
… is largely due to lax anti-doping efforts by the sport.
Just over 1000 players were tested worldwide last year, but often not for substances critics argue are of most performance benefit. A spokesperson for the ITF admitted that an additional US$1.2 million to $1.6 million would be needed “annually to test every athlete sample for EPO and HGH”. In a sport with enormous revenues, this does not seem to be a significant commitment.
But is tennis sufficiently committed to exposing dopers? Travis Tygart, the American anti-doping guru, wonders why the ITF uses a private company to collect biological samples rather than national anti-doping bodies around the world. He laments, rather cryptically, that this puts:
… too much control in the hands of the tennis federation.
While the Sharapova case and tennis’ wider issue of possible doping are hardly one and the same, the ITF was thrust into the first and needs a push towards the second. Susan Egelstaff puts it this way: the ITF has been:
… trying to make an example of Sharapova while tennis’ anti-doping procedures remain below par.
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