Maria Sharapova has been given a two-year suspension by the International Tennis Federation, in the wake of her positive test for the banned substance meldonium at the Australian Open in January.
The ITF announced on Wednesday that the five-time Grand Slam winner would receive a two-year ban and that her results from the Australian Open would be disqualified, causing her to forfeit the ranking points she earned at the tournament and her $281,633 prize money.
The suspension is effective now and backdated to 26 January 2016. There is still an opportunity for Sharapova to resume a tennis career in the future, but the Russian will be fast approaching her 31st birthday by the time the ban is lifted.
Sharapova, who was provisionally banned in March after the positive test came to light, maintains that she did not intentionally break anti-doping rules however and intends to launch an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport. A ban on taking meldonium only came into effect on January 1st this year – previously it was allowed as a treatment for heart conditions – after the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) found “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance”. Sharapova’s claim is that she knew the substance by a different name, mildronate, and was therefore not aware of the rule change. She also stated that she had been taking the drug since 2006 for health issues which included a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes.
Meldonium, or mildronate, is manufactured almost exclusively in Latvia and only distributed throughout the Baltic nations and Russia. It is not approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration and is not authorised in Western Europe. The drug is therefore more prevalent in Eastern European countries, where it is in fact legal to the general public and able to purchase over the counter.
There, it is indeed marketed as ‘mildronate’. But an inspection of it’s packaging reveals that it also quite clearly displays the word ‘meldonium’.
Since the ban came in, as many as 40 Russian athletes have tested positive. A 2015 investigation found that 17% of Russian athletes from a sample of over 4,000 had meldonium in their system, versus 2.2% of athletes across the same studies globally. Meanwhile, the Russian Athletics Federation was suspended from international athletics last November after WADA uncovered evidence of a “state-supported” doping culture.
There has been uncertainty on how long meldonium takes to clear the human body however and as such, WADA announced in April that some athletes who had provided a positive sample before March 1st could have their bans overturned. With Sharapova’s incident occurring in January that gave hope that her name would be cleared, but with the announcement of her suspension it now appears that won’t be the case. Sharapova’s explanation that she wasn’t ‘aware’ that the substance was banned of course incriminates her in an admission of taking the drug after January 1st.
Unknowingly or unwillingly consuming a banned substance is no excuse for a professional athlete. Anti-doping enforcers such as WADA have little chance of being able to prove what a competitor’s intention was when they ingested it. Of course, everyone’s excuse is going to be that they were ‘unaware’ that they were doing wrong. So it’s up to the athlete to be vigilant. And who is more vigilant than a professional athlete when it comes to what they put into their body?
More to the point, all athletes are made aware of the prohibited substances they cannot take. WADA issue their Prohibited List, update annually on January 1st and it is the responsibility of all athletes in any governed sport to be diligent with regard to the list and ensure that prohibited substances are avoided. They don’t exactly have to do much in the way of research either. Every elite athlete routinely receives emails with updates about what’s prohibited and in the case of meldonium, there were repeated warnings since it’s addition to the list was announced on the 16th September last year.
Did Sharapova not read, or simply ignore her emails? Even so, within the entourage of staff that she employs, would there really not be a specific individual whose duty it was to handle them, if she couldn’t herself?
To assist athletes even further, there are national regulatory bodies such as the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) that are in place to provide anti-doping advice and guidance to those who may require some clarity on particular substances. Though a Russian athlete, Sharapova resides in Florida and has done since the age of six. Given the publicity surrounding meldonium since last September, could she really be unaware that mildronate was the same thing?
Many tennis professionals have, understandably, voiced their support for Sharapova, but others have taken a more pragmatic approach. Men’s world number two Andy Murray is one of them. Speaking at a press conference in Indian Wells after the Sharapova revelations in March, he addressed the fact that there had been 55 failed meldonium tests in total up to that point since the ban came in, and had this to say:
“I find it strange that there’s a prescription drug used for heart conditions and so many athletes competing at the top level of their sport would have that condition. That sounds a bit off to me.”
“It’s not up to me to decide the punishment, but if you’re taking performance enhancing drugs and you fail a drugs test, you have to get suspended.”
Such a high number – and only those who have been caught – amongst humans in their physical prime and with exceptional physical gifts? Murray has a point.
And the suggestion that Sharapova did ever need meldonium for the legitimate health reasons she claimed is also now seriously in doubt. Presenting her case to the ITF at an independent three-person tribunal, Sharapova informed them that she had stopped seeing the doctor who first prescribed her meldonium (back in 2006) in 2013 and conveniently had not informed her new doctor that she was taking it.
After the tribunal, the report issued by the ITF stated:
“Whatever the position may have been in 2006, there was in 2016 no diagnosis and no therapeutic advice supporting the continuing use of meldonium. If she had believed that there was a continuing medical need to use meldonium then she would have consulted a medical practitioner.”
“The manner of its use, on match days and when undertaking intensive training, is only consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels. It may be that she genuinely believed that meldonium had some general beneficial effect on her health but the manner in which the medication was taken, its concealment from the anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took it for the purpose of enhancing her performance.”
Meldonium increases blood flow, which in turn improves stamina and endurance in athletes and is ultimately the reason it has been banned. In a sport as cardiovascularly demanding as top-level tennis it’s easy to see where there is a competitive edge to be gained.
And even if it was a genuine, innocent mistake, there would be no excuse. Sharapova is still to blame.