POSTED: March 31st 2016

JOHN GOODBODY: Athletes always seek the edge to beat rivals - but it must be legal

Maria Sharapova held a press conference to announce she had been taking meldonium for 10 years © Getty Images
Maria Sharapova held a press conference to announce she had been taking meldonium for 10 years © Getty Images

THE JOHN GOODBODY COLUMN / An authoritative and exclusive series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) In the continuing fall-out from the slew of positive cases for the drug meldonium, it is clear that a large number of leading athletes in a wide variety of sports have been inadequately advised. In Russia alone, it has been reported that 40 competitors in 10 sports have been caught taking the drug since it was placed on the banned list on January 1 by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada).

It seems inconceivable that the Russian authorities were unaware of the change and then failed to communicate it to the national federations and through them to the individual competitors. If they failed to do this, then they have been derelict in their duty.

That Maria Sharapova, the most highly-paid female athlete in the world, did not get the advice from her medical team -especially since by her own admission she had been taking the drug supposedly for a medical condition for 10 years--is even more remarkable. She now faces the probability of a suspension in her playing career, possibly one long enough to make it extremely difficult for her to return to the level of performance that she has displayed over more than a decade.

After all, top-class tennis is a highly-developed sport and for anyone to regain the sharpness needed for tournament play after many months, if not possibly years away from the international circuit will certainly be difficult, albeit not impossible.

The mistake for which Sharapova and any other competitors found positive for meldonium will suffer is that of not playing to the rules. As a leading professional tennis player, she should have known about the changes and made it her business to know or at least to be surrounded by people whose duty it was to know and to inform her.

There are those critics, who feel that Sharapova and all those others found positive for meldonium, should get the suspensions because until December 31, 2015, the day before the drug was banned, many of them were already morally guilty of taking something that they believed would give them an edge over their rivals.

I am more inclined to agree with John McEnroe, whose forthright comments as a commentator on tennis, are now almost as celebrated as his fierce competitive streak and occasional outrageous behaviour when he was such an outstanding player.

Asked whether Sharapova should be criticised for taking the drug before it was banned, McEnroe said:"If a drug is legal? That is like a no-brainer. Are you kidding? People have been looking since the beginning of time for an edge and you're constantly looking for those things in any way, shape or form. "He then condemned Sharapova and/or her entourage for not recognising the change of status of meldonium, which had after all been on the Wada monitoring list for some time.

The Daily Telegraph in London has suggested that the United States Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) had not found enough concrete evidence to make a case against Alberto Salazar and the Oregon Project over the allegations that he recommended therapeutic use exemptions and other practices to some athletes. Instead, the newspaper raised the possibility that Usada was considering with US Track and Field whether any ethical offences had been committed.

This seems a most dangerous area of criticism. If Salazar had recommended to his athletes any products or methods, which were legal at the time, then he can only be accused of 'sharp practice'. He is doing for his competitors only what any coach would do. Altitude training, oxygen tents, and some medicines and drugs for instance are all permissible, if not always available to all competitors and in some cases their use may be morally dubious. It is only when something becomes illegal that officials have the right and duty to act -- and to act strongly.

** JOHN GOODBODY covered the 2012 Olympics for The Sunday Times, his 12th successive Summer Games and is the author of the audio book A History of the Olympics, read by Barry Davies, the BBC commentator. He was Sports News Correspondent of The Times 1986-2007, for whom he received journalistic awards in all three decades on the paper, including Sports Reporter of The Year in 2001.  

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