Ethics & Rio Ramifications

See updates at end of blog…

Yesterday we learned that tennis star Maria Sharapova has failed a test for a substance called Meldonium. I had not been particularly aware of this performance enhancer before, it was only banned at the new year by WADA, but appears to have been in extensive use by Russian athletes for some time. If the rumours are true, we’re going to be hearing lots more about positive Meldonium cases over the next few months.

A bit of background

Katusha cyclist Eduard Vorganov was caught for the same drug in January, which threatened to put his teams future at risk until the UCI decided that it wasn’t a good rule after all & let them race without additional sanction.

Meldonium is produced in Latvia, it’s apparently only distributed in the Baltic countries & Russia, used to treat lack of blood flow for several diseases, that gives it obvious performance enhancement characteristics. In countries such as the US, it’s not approved for use. Sharapova who claimed to have used it for 10 years, has lived in the US for most of that time, but claims it was prescribed by her doctor, so it’s supply to Sharapova has a ‘dubious’ flag raised, it’s taken some effort to get hold of it or it’s been acquired through illegitimate sources to her home in the US.

When athletes are giving a sample for a dope test, they are required to disclose any other medicines, banned or not that they have taken. Initial rumours (sorry, that’s all we’ve got for now) are that this hasn’t happened, if true, that’s another flag raised. If Sharapova wasn’t aware of the updated rules, she should have disclosed her use of the seemingly prescribed drug to the testers, regardless of its WADA status.

Health

I’m not sure about anybody else, but if my doctor prescribed a medicine to me for a period of 10 years, when it’s only supposed to be prescribed for a few weeks, I’d start to get worried. I’ve just read that 4 to 6 weeks is the recommended duration for using the drug for legitimate use, so if that’s true, 10 years may be a little excessive if it’s for medical reasons. Either Sharapova has some incredibly serious condition that requires this treatment for an unheard-of extended period, or there’s something else going on.  If Sharapova had a theraputic use exemption for this, then that would have been evident & recorded. But it seems she didn’t, even though the requirement for administration of this drug to her seems to be approx 85 times the normal time scale, surely she would have some sort of legitimate medical certificate for this extreme use of Meldonium. It’s amazing the amount of world-class athletes that have potentially debilitating conditions that require potent drugs to treat, drugs which also have beneficial side effects for performance at their chosen sports.

There are some minor side effects listed, along with other dosage information for the drug HERE. Bear in mind, the longest course of therapy listed is 4 to 6 weeks, clinical trials deal with testing for safety for the duration of treatment, there will be no data relating to 520 week use. This is an incredibly risky thing to do, it could cause absolutely anything.

Rio Ramifications

We have a number of drug related issues running up to the Rio Olympics. The ongoing athletics situation, which has shown that some track & field events at the last Olympics possibly had very few legitimate athletes in the finals. On the investigation side, Russia & Kenya are currently being targetted, but it’s unlikely that problems are confined to those countries, it looks endemic & may widen before Rio. Alongside this, we have these kinds of situations, where a large number of competitors across different sports look to have been taking drugs like Meldonium, affected so far are tennis, cycling, athletics, biathlon & ice dancing, with athletes from Russia, Ukraine & Sweden. This would indicate that it’s use is widespread & not confined to particular coaches or sporting federations, it’s reported there’s more to come.

I fully expect the situation to affect the Olympics, we’ll have more revelations before the opening ceremony, look how stories break just before the Tour prologue for maximum publicity, I suspect this pattern will be replicated but on a much bigger scale. What’s happening is good for sport in the long-term, sports like cycling still have big problems, but have been under the spotlight while other sports have been on a free-for-all, with what seems like almost no effective control over drug use.

The Gist Of It

It’s anybody’s guess why an athlete would employ cheating to extend their career, increase performance & strike lucrative endorsements to rake in a total of 20 million dollars a year. We don’t know yet if Sharapova considers the use of Meldonium as cheating, she’s admitted that she took it & accepted that it’s her fault. As more revelations appear over the coming months, it’s likely the public perception of athletes will start to change. Those who’ve been following cycling for many years will assume that most are ‘bumping up to the rules’. This is technically not cheating, but it is unethical & potentially dangerous. Studying the WADA list & making sure you don’t quite tip over the edge to record a positive test, is within the rules, while acquiring therapeutic use exemptions for other conditions you can demonstrate you may have, that have performance enhancing treatment is also on the fine line between cheating & conforming to the rules. It’s all in the grey area & is almost impossible to police effectively.

Sharapova is the most high-profile sports star to recently get caught out, her situation shows how money & fame cloud any potential health issues that an athlete may have. Sadly, the next few years are probably going to result in us seeing some of our former sports stars suffering as a result of the choices they made, using long-term banned or legal drugs to improve performance without a thought going towards the impact it may have on the rest of their lives. It looks like sport needs education, ethics & some major actions, with the current people administrating world sport, this looks highly unlikely to happen in the near future.

Update#1 (8/3/16) – Since publishing this blog we have learnt a couple more things. Sharapova stated that she knew the product name, but had never seen the word Meldonium associated with it, turns out it’s written on the packet right next to the brand name. She also stated that magnesium deficiency & diabetes in her family had resulted in her taking the medicine. Channel 4 News asked the manufacturer, they said their drug has no effect on these issues. There’s a lot that doesn’t add up.

4 Responses

  1. Matt

    Completely agree with the comment about athletes “cheating legitimately”. For instance, it’s astonishing how many pro cyclists have made it to the top of the sport whilst having crippling asthma.

      1. Matt

        If such a significant percentage of the population have asthma to some degree, then is this not just a natural variance in human performance in the same way as haematocrit, VO2 max, or muscle composition?

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