I have to admit that I am no fan of the Russians, or they of us. A recent BBC World News report about economic conditions in Siberia found its reporter harassed by local officials, the subject of false news stories on state-run television, insinuations that even the Queen was a James Bond-like operative, claims that Britain was responsible for the Russian take-over of the Crimea, and photos of a few old houses in Britain to “prove” that things were just as bad in the West as they were at home. To us this is all laughable and ridiculous, but apparently not to Russians being fed the “cold war” rhetoric of Vladimir Putin.
Now there is even more reasons not to like the Russians. Remember when those incredibly sculpted Olympic athletes and women who had bodies like men were dominating the medal count in the 1970s? It turns out that they were getting a little extra chemical “assistance.” Things have changed since then, but only in relative terms. No more obvious super-beefed-up, misshapen physiques, but now the less obvious endurance tricks. Eleven athletes from Russia or its neighboring states have recently tested positive for Meldonium, a drug produced by a Latvian pharmaceutical company, which according to its own claims is used to treat cardiovascular ailments.
However, no rigorous, verified testing has proved this contention, and it is currently banned in the U.S. The World Anti-Doping Agency began monitoring its use among athletes who continued to use the drug well beyond its stated treatment use timeline, and found that Meldonium actually has uses that are more beneficial to athletic performance: It "demonstrates an increase in endurance performance of athletes, improved rehabilitation after exercise, protection against stress, and enhanced activations of central nervous system functions.”
We’ve heard of this kind of thing before with Lance Armstrong, who initially used EPO therapy in the course of his recovery from testicular cancer, but continued to use it when its oxygen-enhancing properties helped his endurance in long-distance cycling. But now it is tennis star Maria Sharapova who is center stage of this latest doping scandal; the other day she called a press conference to confess that she had just been outed by the WADA for failing a drug test that found Meldonium, obviously hoping to contain the damage so that she won’t be banned for life.
But like Armstrong with his prolonged use of EPO for non-medical purposes, she should be banned for life for using Meldonium. Like Armstrong, she used the drug for improper reasons long after allegedly needing it for medical reasons. Yes, Meldonium wasn’t declared a banned substance until January 1 of this year, but that was only after it was finally revealed that its benefit to athletic performance far outstripped its alleged medical benefits. Furthermore, Sharapova admits to having used the drug for at least a decade—which just happens to coincide with the period in which she won all four Grand Slam titles, and with the help of huge Nike endorsement dollars was the highest paid female athlete in the world for all those years in a row.
And it is clear that she did so by cheating, even it wasn’t apparent until now that Meldonium has been exposed. We may conjecture that Sharapova used the drug to enhance her ability to compete with stronger and more agile opponents like Serena Williams, who has handled Sharapova easily in most of their meetings to date. Sharapova has had few defenders, largely because of her aloof attitude toward other players (she now barely even nods her head in acknowledgement after each of her latest losses to Williams). She does have her apologists, of course, like those who prefer to cast blame on her associates for not “noticing” that she was using a performance-enhancing drug, and Martina Navratilova, whose credibility has taken hits in the past for making racially-insensitive comments about black athletes like the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods. Navratilova rather amusingly tweeted that we should give Sharapova the benefit of the doubt, because we don’t have all the “facts”—despite Sharapova’s own acknowledgement of wrongdoing. But others, like Jennifer Capriati, expressed bitterness that Sharapova chose an unethical road and cheated her way to fame and fortune.
And yes, I dislike Sharapova and other female European—usually Russian—tennis players in their cocktail dresses who are drooled upon by even the American sports media. For years Serena Williams has been the best tennis player on her side of the ledger, and she is an American. Yet you will find that even Americans are much less infatuated with her than with the likes of Sharapova. Does it have something to do with the fact that Sharapova is a white, long, leggy blonde? Sure it does, because as has now been proved, she was never a match for Williams on the court.