While Russia is still reeling from the athletics doping scandal, Maria Sharapova’s fall from grace may help lift the lid on a culture of doping that extends to youth sports across the country. Fiona Clark reports.
Ivar Kalvins, the developer of the drug meldonium (Mildronate) that's got Maria Sharapova into so much trouble, says his medication saves athletes' lives. Speaking on Russia's popular Channel One television station, Kalvins said athletes who didn't take it were at risk of a heart attack when they pushed themselves to the limit adding: "We have repeatedly seen that people die in the prime of life on the football field, hockey, basketball."
It's a message Russian sports officials seem to have taken to heart over the last few years, with football clubs, ice hockey clubs and even Olympic training centers buying various substances, including the now banned meldonium, to aid in their athletes' performance and recovery.
According to an investigation by the online newspaper Gazeta.ru, the ice hockey club Kuzbass and the Rostov football club placed more than 41,600 euros ($46,400)-worth of orders between them for medications including meldonium in February 2016 and December 2015 respectively.
Gazeta.ru's report reveals that youth sporting organizations, including Olympic youth training centers, placed hefty orders for the drug along with other performance enhancing pharmaceuticals. It claims the Moscow region SBD (Center of Olympic sports) purchased 7 million rubles worth (90,000 euros) "for the restoration and improvement of performance of athletes," while the Rostov state-sponsored "Olympic Training Center №1" made a similar purchase in 2014. It adds that in August 2015, meldonium was bought by a state-sponsored cycling school in the Samara region.
The purchases show an ingrained and state-sponsored attitude toward doping that will be hard to break. Whether the drug is legal or illegal is irrelevant, as the message it sends to young athletes is that you can't succeed without taking some type of performance or recovery aid.
It also shows just how widespread the problems are - far beyond athletics. Already, the Sochi Olympic ice-skater Ekaterina Bobrovo has fallen foul of the same drug, as has the five-time world champion skater Pavel Kulizhnikov. Semen Yelistratov, speed-skater and winner of the 2014 Olympic Games in the relay, and the volleyball player Alexander Markin have also failed tests for the drug.
Russia's Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko is taking a more pragmatic approach than he did when the athletics scandal broke. Back then, he initially denied all the allegations in the 300-plus page World Anti-Doping Agency report before doing a 180-degree turn and agreeing to cooperate. This time he has indicated there may be more positive results to come, as the drug was so widely used. While he may be looking at the problem with an open mind, the head of the Russian Skating Union, Alexei Kravtsov, says he believes the meldonium was deliberately planted in the skaters' samples to produce a positive result.
The Duma's sports committee will hold an emergency meeting to look at the doping situation, but Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov maintains these 'separate cases' didn't constitute a new doping scandal.
Pervasive drug culture
Maybe. Maybe not. It's probably too early to say. But it is clear that the nation's attitude to taking performance enhancing drugs is not a healthy one. From a young age across a variety of sports they are encouraged to rely on medication to perform and recover. Undoing that culture will take a long and sustained education program for coaches, athletes, doctors and the public.
Of course doping is not just a Russian problem. The Ethiopian-born Swedish runner and 2013 world champion over 1,500 meters, Abebe Aregawi, and Endeshaw Negesse, the Ethiopian 2015 Tokyo marathon winner, have both failed tests for the drugs, as have two Ukrainian biathletes, Olga Abramova and Artem Tyschcenko.
So Sharapova is not alone. The question remains, however, as to why a woman who had spent most of her life in the US would go out of her way to source an old drug, developed in what was then the Soviet Union in 1975, and take it for about a decade knowing that it was not approved for sale in the US and is only sold in the Baltic countries but not the rest of the EU. Surely there would be newer and better drugs on the market to address her ailments? And, why were her ailments not declared to the appropriate governing bodies to explain the findings in her sample?
There's no doubt Russia will have a battle undoing its reliance on drugs in sport, but she too will face a monumental PR battle of her own to come out of this looking squeaky clean.