So this happened late last evening, and people have been having and sharing their opinions on it ever since. I had some too, so let’s go.
Firstly, it’s well established that professional athletes are to be held responsible for everything found in their bodies. Ignorance is not an excuse. Maria Sharapova has tested positive for, and admitted taking, a banned substance, so it follows that she will face some length of suspension from tennis regardless of her intentions in taking it. That’s the way it is and has to be, lest every positive test be followed by athletes pleading ignorance and passing the blame. I mean, that happens almost every time anyway, but more as a formality of public relations than with the expectation of avoiding punishment. All that is to say, Sharapova probably won’t be playing competitive tennis for a while.
Sharapova claims to have been taking the substance in question, known among other things as meldonium, for the past decade on the advice of her “family doctor”. Meldonium has been used to treat heart conditions like angina, and Sharapova mentioned “irregular EKG results” among health issues she encountered in 2006 which presumably led to the prescription of this drug. It has also caught the attention of the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) for it’s possible benefits to athletic endurance and recovery. After being on the Wada watch-list during 2015, it became a banned substance at the beginning of 2016. Clearly, Sharapova continued to take meldonium in the new year, and promptly tested positive for it before January was over.
I like to tackle every hairy issue with Occam’s razor, which is basically this: the simplest explanation with the fewest assumptions is usually the best. Moreover, I like to pair it with House’s shaving cream, or: the simplest explanation is usually that someone screwed up. So let’s say someone screwed up. I see two basic possibilities. Either Sharapova and her team were unaware of the change, which would represent remarkable carelessness in the management of the career of an elite athlete making elite athlete-level money. Or Sharapova and her team knew the new status of the drug and she continued to take it without seeking any kind of therapeutic use exemption, which would represent profound stupidity in the management of … yeah, you know. So was it a careless screw-up or a stupid screw-up? My feeling is that the profoundness of the stupidity is far greater than the remarkability of the carelessness. By which I mean, I think the stupid screw-up is just too stupid. Implausibly stupid, and I don’t say that lightly. So I think she was careless. I think she didn’t know she was taking a banned substance.
There are various ways, across various sports, that competitors will bend the rules or, yes, even flat-out cheat to gain an advantage. Openly taking banned drugs isn’t one of them. Secretly, sure. They’ll use masking agents, dodge out-of-competition tests and any number of other clandestine methods to get away with secretly taking illegal substances. But the timing of meldonium’s change in status and Sharapova’s test strongly suggest she did none of those things. She took a newly banned drug and tested positive for it at the very next major tournament. She was careless.
And that brings me to the real reason I wanted to write this. I’ve read a few of articles about this story, and I’ve also read the comment sections that were, in every sense, beneath those articles. A common theme among them was the suggestion that Sharapova has been cheating for a decade and should be striped of all titles won in that time, banned for all time and burned at the stake. Maybe she has, and maybe she will be. It wouldn’t be the first time an athlete had a convenient excuse or an emphatic denial ready in response to doping allegations or positive tests only for the grim details to come pouring out soon after, followed of course by a
stage-managed, face saving genuine and heartfelt confession. But remember, Occam’s razor is about minimising assumptions. So let’s say Sharapova is telling the truth. She seems so sincere, after all. The drug she’s been taking for a decade was legal for the vast majority of that time. If there’s a drug that can boost endurance and recovery, and it’s legal … I’m frankly amazed that it’s not completely ubiquitous. Even if it came with significant health risks associated, I’d expect a desperate few to try it. Athletes have put their lives in danger using banned substances before, all in the pursuit of an extra few percent in performance.
A legal performance enhancing drug. There’s a part of me that I don’t particularly like right now that thinks a professional athlete would be negligent not to use it. But what do I know? Maybe everyone was taking it, until it was banned and they stopped. But my point is that that would be perfectly legal. Performance enhancing or not, meldonium wasn’t banned until this year. Sharapova was a professional athlete seeking a competitive advantage, and she wasn’t even breaking any rules. Until she was. Until we know more, it would be unfair to brand Sharapova guilty of a decade of cheating. Until we know more, she’s simply guilty of not paying attention.
Wada won’t see the difference. Wada won’t care why she screwed up, or how many times. They won’t see the difference, because they can’t afford to. But the rest of us can. Sharapova got caught taking a banned substance, and for that she’ll face possibly career-threatening suspension. But until we know more, it would be wrong to take pitchforks and torches to her entire career.