By Scott MacLean
When Maria Sharapova announced she’d be holding a press conference in Los Angeles the rumour mill fired into action. What was it about? Retirement? Pregnancy? Another line in her business empire? What we got though was something no one expected; that she’d failed a drug test at the Australian Open in Melbourne in January. The substance? Something called Meldonium, used to treat heart issues, and only added to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) list from 1 January 2016.
Sharapova then stated she had been taking Meldonium since 2006 to combat an irregular EKG and magnesium deficiency, and that it had been prescribed by the family doctor. That in itself was somewhat refreshing – in an age where busted athletes plead that they had no idea how the substance got into their bodies (here’s looking at you Nadzeya Ostapchuk) – at least Sharapova offered up an entirely plausible reason, and given the timeframe between Meldonium going on the list and her failed test it seemed entirely possible it was simply residual elements in her system, or she simply didn’t know.
However, then came the kicker. She didn’t know but the reason for it was as stunning as the announcement of the failed test itself:
“I received an email on 22 December from Wada about the changes happening to the banned list and you can see prohibited items, and I didn’t click on that link.”
That she (or one of her entourage) didn’t bother to check that information is breathtakingly stupid, naïve, or arrogant, or perhaps a combination of all three. Sure she had been taking it for 10 years but as this shows, new substances are added all the time. When your livelihood can depend on that, why wouldn’t you check? To not do that is simply mind-boggling, and even more so for someone at the very top end of their profession and the wealthiest woman in sport.
Then there is the substance itself. Meldonium has been added to the WADA list because of claims it can enhance exercise capacity when combined with other supplements. That of course can be a benefit to anyone seeking an edge, let alone someone playing a sport where aerobic capacity and recovery are critical.
Making it even murkier is Meldonium’s origins. It was developed by a Latvian company and while it is readily available in Russia and other former Soviet countries, it is not in the United States where Sharapova has been based since she began attending Nick Bollettieri’s Academy as a seven year old in 1994. So that leads to another question – if she was using it for medical reasons, then why not something that’s far easier to obtain where she lives rather than this? That doesn’t add up.
Nor does the fact that Sharapova isn’t the only athlete busted for use of Meldonium in the short time since it became a banned substance. Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova also announced today that she had tested positive for it at the European Championships, though professed her innocence by saying she had stopped taking it after WADA announced it was being banned in October; and other athletes are also provisionally banned after failing tests this year.
That’s not a mere coincidence, it’s something more sinister.
Maria might have been taking it for medical reasons, but there’s enough other evidence to be cynical. She might not have announced her retirement, but through her actions – and lack of – at the very least we won’t be seeing, or hearing, the ‘Scream Queen’ on court for quite a while.
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