How Meldonium Could Derail Russian Sport

Russian sport is going through a bit of a storm at the moment and it is all thanks to a drug known as Meldonium. According to the Guardian:

Meldonium is used to treat ischaemia: a lack of blood flow to parts of the body, particularly in cases of angina or heart failure.

The World Anti-Doping Agency deems this drug as doping as athletes were intentionally using it as an enhancer due to it allowing more oxygen to be carried to muscle, meaning that said athlete can recover faster.

On the 6th March, Maria Sharapova called a press-conference to admit that she tested positive at this year’s Australian Open for Meldonium, which is also typically used to treat heart conditions and diabetes (pretty rich considering her Sugarpova brand, but that’s none of my business).

Meldonium was added to the banned list on 1st January first and Sharapova is set to face a four year ban for her carelessness.

Whilst I highly doubt that Maria Sharapova herself has meticulously cheated the system, this is very bad for Russian sport as Sharapova has, as well as being the highest paid female athlete in the world, been the most recognised Russian sports star since her Wimbledon win in 2007.

Whilst she has been praised by fellow pro’s and journalists for holding her hands up and admitting her error, this does seem she is jumping before she was pushed – at least by admitting she can save some face. However, other pros such as Kristina Mladenovic have publicly come out and stated that Sharapova is now seen as a cheat in the WTA locker room.

This creates an even bigger problem for tennis because whilst Sharapova is great for tennis as a brand, the simple fact is that she has been caught using a drug that is banned. Tennis now needs to decide on a suitable punishment for Sharapova and tennis needs to get it right:

Too harsh, the women’s game loses a big name. Too lenient, you lose the faith of both the men (names such as Roger Federer and Andy Murray have called for a ban) and the women on tour.

Since Sharapova’s admission, another 172 athletes (the majority of whom are Russian) tested positive for the drug, names such as Russian speed skating gold medallist Semion Elistratov. Meldonium is very much a new case but it has opened up an unwanted can of worms for Russia who are fighting to prove that they are complying with anti-doping regulations.

The decision to add Meldonium to the list was made on 16th September and the Russian anti-doping agency was informed of this that month. Russia have openly admitted to supplying athletes with Meldonium before it was added to the list, and Latvian manufacturer Grindeks have advised (in written comments to Reuters) that:

“Terminal elimination from the body may last for several months,”

“It depends on a variety of factors such as dose, duration of treatment … type of samples (blood or urine) used for detection of the substance.”

This has offered an unlikely lifeline for Sharapova and the other athletes that have tested positive for Meldonium as WADA have admitted uncertainty about how long the drug actually stays in the body for.

Whilst it is easy to paint Russia as the bad guy, it is very much conceivable that they have been working in accordance with anti-doping the whole time, which makes the issue of Meldonium very tricky and very delicate. This is an issue that the WADA and the relative sporting committees in Russia needs to solve as close to perfect as possible.

What the general world of sport does not need is a witch hunt, which is very much a possibility if people like Roselyn Bachelot keep opening their mouths. Roselyn Bachelot is the ex-French Sports Minister who has accused Rafael Nadal of doping on the grounds that:

“We know that the famous injury which kept Nadal out for seven months is without any doubt because he tested positive. When you see a tennis player out of action for a long time, it’s usually because they’ve tested positive.”

What makes this absurd is that Roselyn Bachelot has no evidence at all to support her claim, whereas Nadal does have knee problems often attributed to chewing up every court he’s ever played on since he turned pro.

Given that Russia was suspended from international competition last year for widespread doping and corruption, they are facing the very real possibility that they will not be allowed to compete at all in the 2016 Olympic games.

Russian sport generally does have a sense of integrity and pride in its athletics prowess, so it would be wise not to jump to any negative conclusions just yet.

Still, given that this is an Olympic year and that Russia itself is hosting the World Cup in 2018, these are very worrying times for Russian sport.

CORRECTION: Sharapova’s Wimbledon win was in 2004, not 2007 as first stated.

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