In case you missed it, and you almost certainly didn’t, Maria Sharapova was suspended by the World Tennis Association this week for using the banned substance meldonium. Sharapova claims that she was taking this medication for years to combat a number of health reasons, including an irregular heartbeat.
Let’s cut right to the chase. I would bet my life savings that Sharapova was taking this medication because of it’s purported performance enhancing effects. The same reason as a number of other athletes, including the 2013 World Champion over 1500m Abeba Aregawi, were taking it, and now have positive tests to their name.
Here’s the thing though – I don’t care if she was taking it for the performance enhancing effects. For the vast majority of the time that Sharpova was taking the drug, the substance wasn’t banned. It has only been banned since January 1st, a period of two and half months. If it isn’t banned, then athletes are allowed to take it.
Athletes take all manner of things to improve their performance. Take caffeine, for example. Caffeine definitely improves performance. It’s not banned, though it used to be. How about nicotine? Perfectly legal, and likely improves performance. I know for a fact a number of athletes use nicotine pre-race, and I guarantee they’re not doing it to try to quit smoking.
Athletes do plenty of other things that aren’t banned to improve their performance. Like training, for example. They hire a coach to tell them the best type of training to do. Countries and athletes with the most money can hire the best coaches, creating an uneven playing field. What about altitude training? If you’re lucky enough to live in a country with altitude, you’ve won the cosmic lottery. Or you can pay for yourself to go and train at altitude. I guarantee British Athletics don’t send athlete to Font Romeu because they like the view.
Athletes are always going to push the boundaries in order to have a chance at success. That is what happens when you introduce competition. But if it isn’t banned, then it isn’t cheating, and to say otherwise is incorrect. The athlete doesn’t set the rules of the sport, they just have to abide by them. Each athlete has to face their own moral and ethical decisions about whether they should or shouldn’t take a legal substance. Personally, I wouldn’t take meldonium, but I don’t despise the athletes that did before January 1st. As an athlete, you have to do everything in your power to stack the deck in your favour, to increase your chances of winning. That’s why we train, follow a strict diet, sleep, and sometimes take supplements. Every professional athlete has to look at themselves in the mirror and ask themselves if they have done everything within the rules to win.
Recently, I took part in an 8km obstacle race in Australia. 100kgs of body mass rather overheats over that distance, so I used paracetamol to bring it down and enable me to exercise for longer. I definitely did not have a headache. I was using a substance to improve my performance in a race. Paracetamol is not banned. Am I a dirty drugs cheat?
Would everyone have been furious if on December 31st 2015, Sharapova revealed that she had been taking a legal substance for 10 years to enhance her performance?
So, my point is – don’t judge Sharapova for taking this substance before January 1st 2016. However, you can absolutely judge her for taking it afterwards. The fact that she didn’t check the email from WADA is absolutely ludicrous. I cannot imagine doing this myself. Furthermore, WADA would have been constantly re-enforcing this rule change through official communications to the athletes.
Do I think that she deliberately took the medication after January 1st in order to cheat? No, I don’t. I do genuinely believe that she was unaware of the rule change, as stupid as that is. You simply would not continue to take a substance that you know will be tested for, at an event where you know you are very likely to get drug tested at. That would just be asking to get caught.
So, go easy when you’re moralising against Sharapova. This isn’t doping to the same extent as Lance Armstrong. In my opinion, it is not a deliberate and organised long term implementation of a doping programme; it’s just an athlete taking something that was legal, and then not following the rules closely enough. She absolutely deserves whatever ban comes her way, however, simply because of the complete unprofessionalism she has shown towards the anti-doping process.