Barbershop Theories: Maria Sharapova’s failed drug test at the Australian Open

It was a Monday afternoon in Los Angeles, Maria Sharapova was holding a press conference.

Many experts thought that Sharapova was calling this press conference to retire. In the past eight months, Sharapova participated in three tournaments and her shoulder was giving her problems over the last couple years. However, Sharapova dropped a bomb that no one in the tennis world was not prepared for. Sharapova announced that she failed a drug test at Australian open.

"I did fail the test and take full responsibility for it," –Maria Sharapova

Sharapova, 28, announced that she was taking a drug named meldonium. Sharapova’s claim was very heartfelt and actually seemed sincere as she stood in front of the assembled media to explain her actions. According to Sharapova, she was obtaining the drug legally from her “family doctor” and explained that she had been taking the drug “for the past 10 years” for health reasons and not to improve her performance.

There were many facts which could have absolved Sharapova of intentionally cheating. There was the mention of Sharapova taking the drug legally from her family doctor. There is the fact that the drug was added to the banned list as of January 1st 2016, which is fairly recent. There was the mentioning of taking the drug under the name mildronate and Sharapova did not know the drug had another name. Thus because of that ignorance, maybe, just maybe, she did not know the drug she was taking was on the banned list.

Perhaps the most compelling part of her explanation was that she was taking the drug to treat her magnesium deficiency and because her family has a history of diabetes, which is actually quite possible.  Meldonium is used to treat ischemia, which is the lack of blood flow and in some cases to treat heart problems. This means we should forgive Sharapova and put this case in the file of legitimate medicine taking and a shred of ignorance, Right? Well it is not that simple.

While there is legitimacy to Sharapova’s story, holes can be poked in it. To the cynical fan, here are some facts one can use at the barbershop to poke holes in Sharapova’s explanation.

Ex. WADA approved the banning of meldonium on September 16, 2015 due to evidence of athletes using the drug to enhance performance should be in bold because it's an argument.

Like any prescription drug out in the world, meldonium does have legitimate use that does not have to do with performance enhancing. However, WADA was able to approve the decision to add meldonium to the list of banned substances on September 16, 2015 and would come in to effect on January 1st2016. This does not mean much as taking the drug under a different name could have legitimately cause the slip up by the 7th ranked Sharapova. However, some people in the tennis circles are not so sure, most notably Caroline Wozniacki, who said this to reporters in New York, 

Any time we take medication we double and triple check, because sometimes even things like nasal spray can be on the banned list,
— via The

While Wozniacki was not attacking Sharapova’s character outright, it does suggest that Sharapova’s ignorance might be suspect.

But wait there’s more.

The reason WADA approved the banning of meldonium to the list was because of evidence of athletes using meldonium for performance enhancing reasons in the past. It is important to note that meldonium is a drug that increases blood flow which obviously can help an athlete’s endurance.

It gets more interesting.

According to a German documentary made by respected reporter Hajo Seppelt, there was a document Seppelt referred to. This document found disclosed that of the 4316 Russian athletes tested, 724 had meldonium in their system.  

Meldonium is also the same drug Russian Cyclist Eduard Vorganov and Russian figure skater Ekaterina Bobrova got banned for using. Russia is the same nation Sharapova hails from, in other words Sharapova could have been intentionally doping for 10 years legally. Nevertheless, there are legitimate counter arguments to this. First, meldonium can legitimately help with issues regarding blood flow. Second, Sharapova is a resident of Florida which is obviously in the United States of America. Third, meldonium was a legal drug which means she technically was doing nothing wrong for 10 years and had she not continued her use of meldonium, this would have been a non-issue. With that being said the counter arguments are not full proof either.

Meldonium is not licensed by the USA or the EU to treat diabetes or magnesium deficiency.

Here’s the thing, the USA and EU do not license meldonium to treat diabetes or magnesium deficiency. The drug is not even approved by the FDA. As mentioned earlier, Sharapova is a resident of the United States. If she was getting the drug from a family doctor, the doctor was basically feeling experimental as the drug is not even approved by the FDA or licensed by the USA or EU. Here’s the counter, doctors are not held to give every patient the same drug in every similar case. For the most part, doctors can make arbitrary decisions and while that can usually get doctors in to trouble, some are celebrated in their community for going against the grain. Until her claim is proven false, the public just have to assume that her intentions where innocent.

Meldonium’s course of treatment is 4-6 weeks

A recent article by The Guardian was very interesting, as it revealed a lot about the drug. The manufacturer of Meldonium, Grindeks, explained that the normal course of treatment for the drug is 4-6 weeks for chronic heart conditions. Sharapova explained that she has been taking the drug for 10 years. Only a doctor can determine whether or not Sharapova would have needed meldonium for longer than 6 weeks, so do not speculate. However, this new information makes Sharapova claim about the use of meldonium being simply for her magnesium deficiency really hard to believe.

It should be stressed that while these are facts, they are used to make arguments and not assertions. Uncomfortable questions about Sharapova’s use of meldonium need to be asked. However, just reading this article and making judgements on Sharapova’s use of the drug is not ideal as other facts can come out. In any case it will be interesting to see the fallout from this story.