Can Sharapova escape suspension?

The Russian tennis star stated she made a "huge mistake" that she was not aware of meldonium having been brought into the Prohibited List at the beginning of this year and she had failed to check up a link that WADA sent her last December.

Maria Sharapova has been bold enough to come forward and tell a press conference that she had tested positive at the Australian Open in January.   -  AP

Did Maria Sharapova make a genuine mistake in consuming a banned drug prescribed by her “family doctor” for her assortment of “health issues”? Or was she trying to enhance performance?

The answer to this will partly provide the clue to what will eventually happen to the highest paid woman athlete of the world.

The doping focus, even as a bribery scandal raged in athletics related to Russian doping, had come briefly onto tennis last year when top male players Roger Federer and Andy Murray called for tougher anti-doping measures in their sport. The stunning admission by the Russian tennis star, Sharapova, has brought the focus right back on tennis at least for the time being.

The fact that the substance she tested positive for, meldonium, was introduced in the Prohibited List by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) only on January 1 this year has helped douse debate about any possible long-term wrong-doing.

Quite significantly, at the time of writing, as many as 100 athletes across sports had tested positive for meldonium in a little over two months, a disturbingly large number that would indicate its widespread misuse plus lack of awareness. It is not unusual for a newly-included substance in the banned list to turn up in large numbers in tests in the first year. The ‘meldonium positive’ cases included the Ethiopia-born Swedish runner Abeba Aregawi, the world 1500m champion in 2013.

Can WADA give a concession because of the large number of positive cases? Unlikely.

The Prohibited List which WADA updates every year contains hundreds of near unpronounceable generic/chemical names of the drugs that normal athletes would find difficult to comprehend. Athletes could be expected to check out with the help of their doctors, support staff or federations about the banned drugs.

Sharapova has been bold enough to come forward and tell a press conference that she had tested positive at the Australian Open in January. She said she had been taking the drug for the past 10 years. She stated she made a “huge mistake” that she was not aware of meldonium having been brought into the Prohibited List at the beginning of this year and she had failed to check up a link that WADA sent her last December.

 

No one would be prepared to believe that a player of Sharapova’s stature, with five career Grand Slam titles, a current world ranking of seven and topper among sportswomen for the 11th successive year in 2015 with a total of USD29.7 million in earnings, would have taken the drug when she knew it was banned. The 2016 banned list was published by WADA last September.

Could she have been taking it to help recover from injuries or to boost her performance all these years since it was never on the Prohibited List? That doubt may linger unless the evidence she brings in is so overwhelming to be doubted. You don’t expect one of the richest athletes in the world to spend 10 years on a little-known cardiac drug, that too of limited availability, for irregular ECG readings.

Meldonium not being a ‘specified substance’ can attract a maximum four-year sanction. In order to get it reduced Sharapova can bring in her medical history and try to prove that it was “unintentional”. It is not for ITF to prove that it was “intentional”. Athletes need a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) to take a banned drug in the normal course for specific health reasons.

It would be surprising if a panel gives some merit to an argument from Sharapova’s lawyers that meldonium was mentioned in the Prohibited List but not Mildronate which actually is a brand name and which alone she knew. Other brand names include Cardionate, Idrinol, Metonat and Trizipin.

The fact that Mildronate was mentioned along with meldonium in the “summary of changes” for 2016 issued by WADA last September will go against such an argument. Once she is able to convince the panel about the “intention” she will have to fall back on the “no significant fault or negligence” clause to gain further reduction from the two-year ban that could await her.

This is where a problem could arise since having let the world know that she had been negligent in not checking on the list that WADA sent her, the ‘no-significant-fault-or-negligence’ window suddenly shuts on her.

Let us for a moment assume that WADA had not sent an e-mail to her and the ITF or the WTA had also failed to inform her. Even then it would have been her responsibility to ascertain either personally or through her medical/support team whether any drug that she was taking was banned. Athletes are supposed to know the implications of what they ingest. After all, a new Prohibited List is always available on the WADA website and that of every international federation and most National Anti-Doping Organisations (NADOs).

If the “no significant fault or negligence” plea is acceptable then the quantum of punishment would be dependent on the “degree of fault” but it cannot be less than half the otherwise applicable sanction.

There is a provision for a retroactive TUE in exceptional cases which, if reports are to be believed, Sharapova’s legal team could be looking into. If she gets it she would be free to compete without going through the trauma of a suspension.

A retroactive TUE is normally given in a situation where an athlete might have been administered banned drugs in an emergency medical situation when there was no time to apply for a TUE. It could also be granted if the International Federation (ITF in this case) and the WADA agree that fairness would demand such a TUE be granted. It would be extremely tough to gain such a verdict for a drug like meldonium.

“Prompt admission” of anti-doping rule violation is another ground that the authorities could take note of in showing leniency towards an offender. Mention of meldonium in the doping control form would also be a beneficial factor.

Several incongruities stand out in this already-much-debated doping episode, the most glaring being the use of a drug that was not approved in the country of Sharapova’s residence (USA) where she had been since the age of seven.

Meldonium, manufactured by Latvian company Grindeks is approved for sale in Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan. It is not approved by the FDA in the U.S., or the European Union drug agency. It is used in the medical field for treating angina, myocardial infarction and chronic heart failure. A study claimed that the drug also increased athletic endurance. It was also reportedly used by the Soviet troops in the 1980s to boost stamina.

A 2015 study showed 724 of the 4316 Russian athletes tested (17%) were found to have meldonium in their system. Another 2015 study showed 182 of 8230 athletes (2.2%) having the substance in their system.

In a study specifically conducted to find out meldonium abuse by athletes participating in the European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan, in June 2015, it was found that 66 of the 762 samples tested had turned up meldonium. Thirteen medallists were taking the drug at the time of the games as per their admission. Meldonium use was detected in 15 of the 21 sports in which competitions were held in Baku. Twenty three athletes admitted that they were on the drug.

The study that appeared in the British Journal of Sports Medicine stated that the drug was “evidently being used with the intention to either improve recovery or enhance performance.” That study apparently strengthened WADA’s resolve to move meldonium from the ‘monitoring programme’ to the banned list in 2016.

It is always difficult to believe that several young, fit athletes could develop cardiac problems across sports just as it has always been amusing to note in the past that TUE requests for asthma medications increased manifold closer to an Olympics!

The most sardonic comment on the Sharapova incident came from Paul Kimmage, former Tour de France cyclist, Irish sports journalist and anti-doping crusader, on Twitter: “To be a truly great sportstar you don’t need angina, ADHD, asthma, bilharzia or testicular cancer... but it sure helps.”