At the Australian Open quarterfinals on January 26, 2016 at Melbourne, Russia’s Maria Sharapova suffered her umpteenth defeat against the world no.1 Serena Williams. The same day, she failed a dope test but the news was not immediately made public. During a press conference in March 2016, the 29-year old Russian dropped a bombshell by admitting that for 10 years, she had been using meldonium for medical purposes but didn’t know it was a banned substance under World Anti-Doping Agency, WADA. The International Tennis Federation provisionally suspended Maria from competitive tennis on March 12, 2016. All of a sudden, the Russian star became a pariah castigated even by her own colleagues. It was a huge comedown for someone, who had been ranked so high in women’s tennis for so long. Maria is currently facing a doping panel in London with the full knowledge that the maximum punishment for failing the drug test is four years. Though Meldonium came in the list of banned substances from the start of 2016, confusion has prevailed over the length of time that the drug remains in the system. This led WADA to issue of guidance in March that certain levels could be ignored. But Maria is not covered by this amnesty since she admitted to using meldonium throughout January.
Maria Sharapova has been playing on the WTA circuit since 2001 and resident in US since 1994. With her stunning good looks and a 6’2” stature, Maria has been a glamor icon in women’s tennis and media circles. After a decade spent on tennis courts, Maria is one of the richest woman athletes with a host of lucrative endorsement deals. Many of those sponsors are distancing themselves from the Russian after her provisional doping ban. Maria has won every Grand Slam tournament once and the French Open twice to collect 5 Grand Slam trophies in her long career. But with a built-in haughtiness in her character, Maria has not made many friends even in the tennis circuit. Therefore, when the news about her failed dope-test became public, some prominent tennis players were the first to slam her. Former grand slam champion Jennifer Capriati took the lead in castigating Maria on social media, saying the Russian should be stripped of all her titles. Caroline Wozniacki mirrored the sentiments expressed by Capriati and earlier this week, Andy Murray blasted Racquet manufacturer Head for extending Maria’s endorsement contract.
No one wants to believe that Maria didn’t know about the banned substance. Czech tennis star Petra Kvitova said Sharapova has made a big mistake by not paying attention to the list of banned drugs by WADA. Some players are sympathetic to Maria’s cause but these sentiments are more perfunctory than real. Maria’s case is vastly different from Malaysian badminton icon Lee Chong Wei, who garnered unstinted world-wide sympathy, when he failed the dope test. Lee has served his 8-month doping ban and stormed back to badminton courts with a bang. He is already the world no.2 in badminton.
Meldonium is primarily prescribed for the treatment of ischaemia, a heart condition resulting from lack of blood flow to vital body organs. The drug is manufactured in Latvia and is freely available in Russia and other Baltic countries. But Meldonium is not an FDA approved drug and its sale is not authorized in US and the rest of Europe. It increases blood flow and as a consequence, improves exercise capacity in athletes. However, the drug was not in the list of WADA banned substances until December 2015. Maria’s statement that she didn’t know about the status of Meldonium as a banned substance since the beginning of 2016 is not being bought by ITF or WADA.
Maria’s case is considerably weakened despite her claim of using the drug on doctor’s advice. Her best chances before the examining panel in London would to submit the detailed health reasons that prompted her physician to prescribe meldonium to her for therapeutic use. But the chances of Maria avoiding any ban are highly debatable. The best that could happen to her is a reduced ban of between 6 and 12 months that would take effect from the date of her provisional suspension on March 12. However, even if the panel is lenient to her, Maria will miss all the Grand Slams in the current year and of course the Rio Olympics.
Meanwhile, in a strange off-shoot to Maria Sharapova’s involvement with meldonium, the sale of the over-the-counter drug in Russia has jumped multi-fold. It is sold as Grindeks’s mildronate and as per marketing claims in its prescription coupon; it induces a toning effect, enhances one’s memory, brings clarity and promptness in one’s thinking, leads to dexterity of movements and helps the body defend itself against adverse conditions. The drug was developed for the Soviet troops in Afghanistan to help their endurance but is currently marketed for a wide range of other ailments. A pack of 40 pills of 250mg strength can be bought in Russia for just $4 and there is no shortage of it in Russian drug stores. The general feeling about the drug is; if it was good for Maria, it had better be good for the common man, who doesn’t have to face WADA or ITF.