doping Maria Sharapova

50 Shades of Sharapova: How the Media Covered and Didn't Cover Meldonium

11:10 AMAleks Vee

by Aleks V

In my five years of sports journalism, I've never once mentioned doping. Professional soccer, thankfully, has rarely had problems with Performance Enhancing Drugs in recent years. Either that, or few such problems have been unearthed. The last high-profile case was Diego Maradona back in 1994.

After a year of monitoring meldonium, also known as mildronate, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) added it to its list of banned substances on Jan 1, 2016.

Since meldonium was banned, a soccer connection has only come up once - when FC Rostov's entire starting eleven were subject to a surprise test by FIFA after a 3-1 win over Dynamo Moscow in May. All of the players tested negative.

Other sports, namely tennis, have been in the spotlight for athletes testing positive for the substance.

Tennis player Maria Sharapova, who initially received a two-year suspension for a positive test, recently had her ban reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

"I think the one thing that I'd love to evidence on the performance-enhancing effect that it has," she said.

Claims that meldonium qualifies as a Performance Enhancing Drug, or PED, originate from a study funded by the Partnership for Clean Competition Research Collaborative and the Federal Ministry of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany. The study "does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Research Collaborative". The widespread use of meldonium among athletes, including those who don't engage in high-risk sports, as well as its presence on the black market, apparently leads to the suspicion and conclusion that it is used as a PED. However, no data is provided to support the enhancement claim. According to a notice issued by WADA, "Limited data exists to date on the urinary excretion of meldonium. Several studies are currently being conducted involving WADA-accredited laboratories, and WADA will share these results with its stakeholders when available."

In that same notice, WADA lies about the manufacturer's claims of enhancement. In an open letter to WADA, Grindeks, the manufacturer of meldonium, stated, "We're convinced that Meldonium is not a preparation enhancing an athlete's sports achievements...The therapeutic use of Meldonium does not contradict the spirit of sport and, especially, health."

Meldonium "was help patients with cardiovascular diseases survive difficult times when, for whatever reason, the supply of blood to their heart muscle worsens", said Professor Ivars Kalvins, its inventor.

Kalvins explains why it isn't doping, describing the substance as having the opposite effect. "Athletes can train without being afraid that if they inadvertently overstep their limit, they will end up in hospital with a heart attack or die on the field," he said. Meldonium is available in Eastern European countries, including former Soviet republics.

Many other professionals dispute the claims that meldonium can be a PED. They include Don Catlin, founder of the first sports anti-doping lab in the United States and "considered the most prominent anti-doping drug tester in the world".

Dr. Michael Joyner, a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic who has published hundreds of studies focusing on how humans respond to exercise, says the effects of meldonium are unclear.

Ford Vox, physician and medical analyst for NPR station WABE in Atlanta, said that "outside of the hype you see about the drug online, there's not much scientific support for its use as an athletic enhancer."

Many well-known athletes, whose Therapeutic Use Exemptions became publicly available through hacker group 'Fancy Bears', take doses of otherwise banned substances for medical reasons. After multiple requests, Bethanie Mattek-Sands received therapeutic exemption in April for use of hydrocortisone, a steroid medication used for treating inflammation. Serena and Venus Williams were both given Therapeutic Use Exemptions to take a series of substances on WADA's banned list for various health problems. These substances include opioid painkillers (banned due to being labelled as narcotics) and corticosteroid anti-inflammatories.

WADA's decisions to include or exclude known PEDs are controversial. Multiple studies have shown that caffeine, a widely used stimulant, can enhance an athlete's performance. It is monitored, but not currently banned by WADA. It used to be, but was removed from the list in 2004.

Concerning Sharapova, much of the mainstream media were quick to jump on the one-sided bandwagon of blame.

The New York Post slams her for her "poor-little-scapegoat act". Vanity Fair claims the "drug scandal may be darker than you think". The Telegraph claims she "has no shame". USA Today and Forbes offer an altogether different perspective. Meanwhile, The New York Times attempts to stay neutral, while The Guardian mistakes neutrality with trying to please both sides. There's one thing the last publication does right, though, and that's mention that Sharapova could have applied for a Therapeutic Use Exemption. Then again, this assumes prior knowledge of meldonium's new status as a banned substance. Sharapova has claimed WADA did not make an effort to better inform Eastern European athletes using meldonium that the substance was added to the banned list. reminds us that two players, Greg Rusedski and Xavier Malisse, had their careers tainted despite being cleared to play. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, and one instance to destroy it. Often, that instance comes in the form of a headline and a story with false charges. That story is printed and reprinted, shared among the masses who believe in the brand, or believe what they're told because it's been told so many times before. The more the same lie is repeated, the more it begins to look like the truth.

George Gerbner's cultivation theory states that the more people watch television, the more their views of reality begin to match what they see. I'd go one step further to say that all forms of mass media can form a vicious cycle, one in which the viewer's perspective on the world is shaped, then constantly reaffirmed by what they are shown and told. That theory goes hand-in-hand with Eli Pariser's "filter bubble" - a personalized, reflective echo chamber created by the web. Ironically, this echo chamber is not so "personalized" - millions are stuck in the exact same bubble.

When the right information is out of reach, few will spend time navigating the maze that is the worldwide web until they reach the facts. It's easier to be content with what you're given than to ask why it's given, and whether it makes sense.

Let's ask whether certain substances banned by WADA should be considered PEDs.

Let's bring back the question mark.

Let's see media coverage in not one, but in all 50 shades.

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