Commentary

Sharapova case shows why anti-doping fight must be better funded

Perhaps your sympathy lies with Maria Sharapova this morning. You may believe that she is in need of a heart medicine that just happens to enhance performance and that she was, as she claims, simply careless.

I will save my concerns for the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) and all those bodies striving to keep sport clean.

This case has only underlined what an impossibly Herculean task they face, fighting to make sport fair on our behalf.

Sharapova is the stellar name, the startling headline, the jaw-dropping press conference and the shock news for tennis.

But the story is far bigger, more alarming, than one player trying to plead that she has been a bit ditzy.

What troubles deeply is the extent of meldonium seemingly taken across many sports with Wada reportedly putting it on its prohibited list after 8,300 random doping control urine samples were analysed and 182 showed up positive. That is a lot of elite athletes with heart problems.

Did they report those health conditions when the drug was put on the Wada watchlist last year?

Maria Sharapova's startling admission in Los Angeles drives home the pressing need for adequate resources to keep sport clean.
Maria Sharapova's startling admission in Los Angeles drives home the pressing need for adequate resources to keep sport clean. PHOTO: REUTERS

Did any speak up when it was banned from Jan 1? Of course not.

What troubles deeply is the extent of meldonium seemingly taken across many sports with Wada reportedly putting it on its prohibited list after 8,300 random doping control urine samples were analysed and 182 showed up positive. That is a lot of elite athletes with heart problems.

On Monday night, Wada confirmed that since meldonium was put on the banned list at the turn of the year, it has been found in 55 samples (though it did not say how many athletes were involved).

In introducing meldonium to a wider world, the Sharapova affair has helped show up once more the rotten culture of athletes and coaches exploring the frontiers of medicine - and straying deep into very dubious territory - which is still endemic in many sports.

It is easy enough to see how it happens.

An online advert for mildronate claims that it can improve mental processes including focus and concentration, reduce fatigue, enhance athletic performance and promote oxygen delivery.

No wonder sport is braced for a plethora of positive tests.

Given that until Jan 1 it was legal - and seemingly safe - for athletes to take, even if they lacked any medical condition, it reminds me of sitting with Lance Armstrong as he talked about why he had binged on EPO (erythropoietin).

"Totally undetectable, unbelievably beneficial, and most would say, if monitored by a doctor, totally safe. What were we all gonna do? Trust me. We're all in," Armstrong said. He described EPO as "the perfect drug".

This is a culture that Wada still faces across many disciplines and regions; the sense that anything goes, that the boundaries are there to be explored, that "legal" makes it fair and legitimate. And when it becomes illegal, the only mistake is getting caught.

An anti-doping conference is due to be held at Twickenham today in which heavyweight speakers include Dick Pound, the former head of Wada, and Craig Reedie, the organisation's president.

Among other things, we can expect to hear them complain about the lack of resources when sport generates billions of dollars yet Wada must get by on an annual budget of about US$25 million (S$34.63 million).

It is a huge concern, which requires cutting-edge detective work, but the funding that sport devotes to the problem remains scandalous.

Sport talks a good game about anti-doping but does not want to pay for it. In the case of many sports, we have seen that they would rather look the other way.

This is the scale of the challenge for all the anti-doping agencies who must try to keep up with the advances in medicine, and all the many ways that athletes will try to push the limits.

So Sharapova protests her case, helped by expensive lawyers and slick PR specialists, and tries to explain why she was taking a heart medicine that was not even authorised in the United States where she lives.

However, the big question is not whether one tennis player was dozy or the length of her ban, but how the anti-doping forces step up their attacks in this seemingly unwinnable war.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline 'Sharapova case shows why anti-doping fight must be better funded'. Print Edition | Subscribe