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Little is known about meldonium, the drug that brought down Maria Sharapova

There are not enough detailed empirical studies on the whole array of physical aspects that the drug impacts over long-term use.

tennis Updated: Jun 09, 2016 12:15 IST
Sukhwant Basra
Sukhwant Basra
Hindustan Times
Maria Sharapova,Meldonium,Russia
Maria Sharapova has been banned for two years testing positive for the banned medication meldonium during January's Australian Open. (AFP)

Meldonium or mildronate enhances blood flow and that enables more oxygen to be available for muscles when they are under stress. That in turn implies that they will stay stronger. Possibly, even last longer.

There are not enough detailed empirical studies on the whole array of physical aspects that the drug impacts over long-term use. At least, not in the public domain.

Read | Maria Sharapova suspended for 2 years, says she will appeal doping ban

Among the 200-odd positive tests, majority are Russian. Now, Russia has been on the cutting edge of using sports science to enhance athletic performance. A heritage from the cold war era (a time when the warring philosophies of communism and the West’s form of democracy made sport an extension of the propaganda war to assert a superior form of governance ), the former Soviet nation has always had a systematic program for grooming athletes.

Just how much of an athlete’s performance stems from tapping futuristic science is a matter of speculation for the best of research certainly isn’t bandied about.

Extra nudge

Instead, it is logically enough always used to get that extra percentile nudge that invariably separates the champions from the also-rans. This is true for great sporting nations around the world and not just the former Eastern bloc countries. In all probability, there is a manual out there which has detailed research on just what Meldonium does to aid physical performance. Probably only the few people administering to athletes have access to it.

It’s in light of this that ITF’s decision to ban Maria Sharapova for two years needs to be evaluated. Was it a drug that only increased strength? or did it do more? Then, Sharapova had not revealed that she regularly uses the medicine to counter a magnesium deficiency (aids in blood pressure), a heart condition and her family’s diabetes history.

That she did not reveal its use in numerous doping forms she must have filled over the years, makes things a bit suspect as per the ITF. Her assertion that she had been taking it for close to a decade and the drug has been put on the banned list just this January may hold merit in the fact of the matter that there isn’t enough precise data on how long the body takes to flush it out. Possibly it may linger on for months even after use has been stopped. But then this isn’t even her defence. She admits to inadvertently continuing with Meldonium intake as she was not aware of the fresh ban on it.

Read | Citing ITF tribunal’s findings, Nike resumes ties with banned Sharapova

Damning bit

Athletes like Sharapova are multi millionaires. They employ the best of physios and doctors to keep their bodies fine-tuned for peak performance. The ITF says she did not tell any one of them about her using the drug for a medical condition. That, then, is the damning bit.

It stretches the imagination that any top athlete will tinker with the body’s biochemistry on her own without knowing just what it did to her athletic performance.

To continue with the same substance even after it has been banned may have been out of ignorance but it remains to be seen if her appeal in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) finds any sympathetic ears. Given the stature of Sharapova and the increasingly growing intolerance for drug cheats, it may well be that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) does not accept any toning down of the sentence even if the court decides to pass any such ruling.

Sharapova seems to be cornered. Her guilt, or the lack of it, is unlikely to be established. Just as her sentence is unlikely to be pared down. Fans may well have to get used to her being barred from tennis till January 25, 2018. And a blow like that could well prod her towards retirement.

Fans can just hope that she has the reserves of courage and determination that will be required to make a comeback from the hole she finds herself in. Or else, the sport would have lost not just one of its most marketable faces but also a player that has not done justice to the early potential she exhibited when she raced to World No 1 at the scant age of 18.

Read | The story of Maria Sharapova: From rags to riches to doping ban

Sharapova, the champion, needs to hold court again if her legacy is going to be more than being remembered as the good-looking player who got banned for a doping offence. The question is: does she have the grit to do it?

First Published: Jun 09, 2016 11:18 IST