Gotta love them shades of grey…

So there’s been quite a bit of attention given to Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test from earlier in the year.

After holding a press conference regarding the situation, where the supplement that caused her test failure she had been taking for a decade as added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Prohibited List from Jan 1st 2016, three of her largest sponsorship deals fell through.

WADA’s brief statement regarding the situation confirmed the situation regarding the supplement in question, meldonium.

“We can confirm that meldonium was added to the 2016 Prohibited List which took effect on 1 January 2016, having previously been on WADA’s monitoring program for the duration of 2015.”

So, what is meldonium? According to WADA’s 2016 Prohibited List, it is noted as a metabolic modulator, alongside Trimetazidine and other items.

Wikipedia’s page on the drug explains its doping usage via a 2015 study:

“A December 2015 study in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis argued that meldonium “demonstrates an increase in endurance performance of athletes, improved rehabilitation after exercise, protection against stress, and enhanced activations of central nervous system (CNS) functions.”

The first sponsor, TAG Heuer, opted not to renew their deal so within hours of Maria’s press conference. Nike and Porsche have suspended theirs.

The are many angles from which to consider the situation:

  1. If meldonium was being scrutinised all of last year, how did Maria not know of this?
  2. If she did not know of the extra scrutiny, does this indicate she has a nutritionist who oversees her diet and supplement usage?
  3. Did she hold the conference for damage control, owning up to what had happened before WADA announced it?
  4. If WADA had announced the situation to the media first, would we be more likely to think Maria was untrustworthy?
  5. Since the item in question was a recent addition to the Prohibited List, have her sponsors reacted too swiftly?
  6. Does the situation overshadow her achievements since she began using meldonium in 2006?
  7. Considering the failed test was in January 2016, within a month of the drug being added to the list, how long does it remain in your system?

As with every elite-level sport, there is a high level of scrutiny to ensure a level playing field for the participants. It comes down to a person’s raw talent, be it their natural proficiency (extremely rare) or the insane amounts of time dedicated over many years to become that good. According to Wikipedia’s page on Maria:

“Aleksandr [Kafelnikov, father of Yevgeny] gave Sharapova her first tennis racquet in 1991 when she was four, whereupon she began practicing regularly with her father at a local park. Maria took her first tennis lessons with veteran Russian coach Yuri Yutkin, who was instantly impressed when he saw her play, noting her “exceptional hand-eye coordination”.

So, did she go the Captain America route and go from ‘zero to hero’ via super-serum? No, she honed her natural abilities to a fine edge, and made it to the main tour at the age of 16.

Every athlete is looking for a way to get an edge on their opponents, hopefully by legal means. In 2006, the drug was not illegal. While there are plenty of legal supplements out there for athletes to use, the current situation indicates that these are being further and further restricted to improving recovery time. Equal recovery time for players is an almost impossible task to achieve these days, with broadcast obligations and the maximising of crowd attendances ensuring there will always be several hours extra rest for one player once it gets to the pointy end of tournaments.

So, with the benefit of hindsight:

  1. If you’re using a supplement that is under an authority’s scrutiny, you should stop using it immediately (or your nutritionist cease providing it) until it is cleared or added to the Prohibited List. If you can’t quit it cold turkey, that’s a bad sign in and of itself.
  2. Admitting fault is always a good thing. If you’re using a supplement that is under an authority’s scrutiny, do you declare your usage as soon as it is declared under investigation?
  3. An elite sportsperson would have to go by the ‘my body is a temple’ mentality, as it is what earns them their pay packets.
  4. It didn’t make Maria invincible (Record versus Serena Williams), though you’d consider the use of suspect supplements against the spirit of the game.
  5. Sponsorship deals are, more often than not, provided to those who are considered of impeccable moral standing and good character. If there is any reason to call those two things into question for your sponsoree, it is fair to take action, though it always looks better for the sponsor to not have a knee-jerk reaction.

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