The Russian Meldonium Scandal: A Dark Hour for Sports

I prefer to enjoy the humor in sports. The athletic industry has its own wing in the entertainment sector of the world, and as such there are plenty of feel-good elements to each game. Certain aspects can bring out the lighter side of such a stress filled environment, and allow consumers to thoroughly appreciate sports for what they are, and what they are meant to stand for.

The Russian meldonium scandal is not one of them. For those of you unaware, let me catch you up to speed with the most startling athletic doping problem that next to nobody is talking about. In September of 2015, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced its banned substances list for the following year (to be in effect January 1st). WADA’s newest addition to their index was meldonium, which is used in its prescribed state to treat heart and chest related issues. It’s never a big deal when a new substance becomes banned by WADA, even when it is one that has been taken regularly by droves of athletes. But when somebody continues taking the drug after it has been made illegal, then it becomes newsworthy. And the more famous the athlete, the more public interest that will result.

The First Major Domino Falls

Enter Maria Sharapova. In the world of women’s tennis, Serena Williams is the unquestioned and unmatched queen. Sharapova has been the second most prominent female player in the past decade, and is viewed in many circles as the most marketable female athlete in the world. When she stepped up to that microphone last month and announced she had a failed a drug test, the reaction was mere bewilderment. What did you take? And why did you take it?

Those of us living in North America have become desensitized towards failed drug tests in sports. Baseball players have wagged their fingers right in the face of Congress before ultimately being proven as fraudulent. Sharapova had failed a drug test for meldonium, and most of the public had no idea what that was, or what that substance was intended to do. The peculiar part came when she mentioned that she had been taking it for years, and had viewed it as a method to help with discomfort (her heart), rather than gain a competitive advantage. Sharapova claimed that she didn’t check the new list of banned substances, and made an honest mistake. That was odd, we thought. But it seemed believable, so meldonium and most of Sharapova’s negative press went away.

An Entire Team Disbanded

This is the part of the story that irritates me to my core. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) hosts professional and junior tournaments every year. The under-18 tournament takes place this very month in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Earlier this week, in the final days leading up to this showcase of world talent, the entire Russian team and coaching staff were dismissed. Every last one of them. Gone. There has been no “official” reason given by the Russian Hockey Federation, but journalist Slava Malamud broke this story with a string of chilling tweets:

Drug scandals have become commonplace in the world of sports, but it reached a new low in this case. These are children. Kids trying to make it an ultra-competitive sport were given an illegal supplement. Was their will compromised? Who cares. This should not be happening and the cowards responsible for this should be removed from the game of hockey. I understand that adolescent hockey players are on the verge of becoming grown men, and have the ability to make their own choices. But imagine working your whole life for one goal, to represent your country, and to make your family proud by exceeding in the sport you’ve sacrificed your part of your childhood for. If everyone in your locker room is taking a banned substance, and your coaching staff is demanding you do the same, what is the alternative? At 17 years old, you risk losing everything you’ve ever wanted in life, and have nobody in your work-space to turn to. I’m not condoning cheating at all, but let’s think about who the real antagonists in this story are.

To make matters worse, the meldonium problem is not exclusive to Sharapova or this particular Russian hockey team. In the past three months alone (since the substance was banned), athletes in sports such as volleyball and curling have been popped for taking the drug. Some teams have been completely overhauled, while each remains particularly wounded from the loss of their athletes. The question is not whether there is a doping culture developing in Russia, because that culture is developed. The real question is just how evolved is it, and at point does dose the doping start in their athletic system.

I want to make it clear that I’m not anti-Russian athletics, nor do I believe every Russian athlete should be dismissed as a cheater. I just want answers like the rest of the athletic community. There has been a feverish debate as to whether meldonium actually enhances performance at all, and whether a competitive edge can be truly gained by taking it. Respectfully, I think that misses the point. When a substance is banned, you stop taking it. There be a time to resume its consumption, when those with proper education and practice have deemed it to be legal and safe. But you damn sure stop giving it to kids. Every doping scandal under the North American sun has involved professional and collegiate athletes, who have made their choices as grown adults. Never before have we seen such a widespread potential conspiracy that involved the sporting youth. It’s sickening, and it deserves far more coverage than it’s getting.

Not Approved in the United States

The scariest detail about meldonium is that it still has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States. That the federal agency that monitors health and human services does not allow meldonium to be purchased in their country means that Sharapova, who has lived in the US since 1994, had to go about other means to obtain it. Traveling to other countries (i.e. Russia) and online pharmacies make it easy to secure, but again, the bigger picture is missed. The top health professionals in the US and several other countries do not know if this substance is safe to take. Yet it is being taken at mass levels of athletic competition, in its worst instance, given to children.

It would be naive to view the entire doping culture as exclusively Russian. The rest of the sports world has been plagued by those trying to circumvent the rules for an advantage. The 1984 Summer Olympics was dubiously nicknamed “The HGH Games,” and led to the alarming discovery that many athletes were taking human growth hormones. Every country has its demons, and every closet has its skeletons. But it takes a clear message from those with positions of power. These types of practices, this type of behavior, will not be tolerated. Drug usage should result in hefty suspensions and be used as a mechanism to deter similar behavior. A laissez-faire approach will only loosen the reins on substance-abuse control, and lead to more serious offenses at a larger quantity.

Many Questions, Few Answers

I still have faith in sports. I’d like to believe that Maria Sharapova made an honest mistake, and that a couple of horrendously bad apples are the only parties to blame for a Russian athletic disgrace. Because I want answers. I want to hear more from Sharapova about why she took a substance consistently for over a decade that is designed for to be consumed during 4-6 week periods. I want to hear from Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary USSR goaltender and president of the Russian Hockey Federation, who has yet to say anything regarding his program’s scandal. And I want to know why mass amounts of athletes all failed to stop taking a banned substance despite being given nearly four months to do so. If there is a legitimate reason that meldonium is being taken by any athlete, then we need to further the discussion. But if this is a masking agent, used to hide other more serious substances, then we all lose.

The Russian Hockey Federation has decided to send their 17-year-old age group to replace their U18 team. IIHF officials are hopeful that the new Russian team will be able to compete, and compete fairly. But can we really be sure that this team is clean from the dark cloud of meldonium? Can we really be sure of anything anymore? It’s time to go on the offensive against sports doping, and get the real dopes out of sports.