Column: Maria Sharapova and the court of public opinion

Tennis star Maria Sharapova speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles on Monday, March 7, 2016.Sharapova says she has failed a drug test at the Australian Open. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

Maria Sharapova blew away rumors of retirement with a more volatile announcement of testing positive for a banned substance in January at the Australian Open, according to the New York Times. With five Grand Slam singles titles and about $40 million in career prize money, Sharapova has established herself as a power player in the world of tennis. However, with this explosive disclosure, the world turns to see how the sport’s officials will handle the situation, especially in a sport that has been remarkably quiet about issues involving its athletes turning to exogenous substances in order to aid their body’s ability to take a beating after vigorous exercise.   

The drug found in Sharapova’s system was meldonium, commercially known as Mildronate. It is not FDA approved, but is commonly used in Eastern Europe to treat people with heart problems in order to increase the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to tissues. Its effect takes place by redirecting the body’s metabolic processes, according to Quartz. The body creates energy by metabolizing proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Typically, metabolizing fatty acids uses more oxygen, thus depleting oxygen levels in the blood.

The Latvian company Grindeks, which manufactures meldonium, told the Associated Press that the “treatment course of meldonium preparations may vary from four to six weeks.” They further stated that they did not believe that the substance would enhance the athletic performance of an individual and may even do the opposite.

Sharapova claims that she’s had health issues over the years, and due to her deficiency in magnesium coupled with her family’s history of diabetes, a doctor prescribed the drug to her ten years ago.

I’m sure there are plenty of law-abiding people willing to jump the gun to point fingers at Sharapova. Whether she truly needed the drug or not, I cannot attest to — but I can use a semester’s worth of biochemistry to explain why and how this drug is a legitimate claim to her reported health issues. Maybe the company can even take a few notes here if they still believe that the drug wouldn’t help athletic performance.

We all know that to be a good athlete, or even a living human being, oxygen is extremely important. So this drug prevents the metabolic breakdown of fatty acids, a process that requires oxygen, for energy. It stops the body from depleting its carbohydrate stores for energy. This metabolic process does not need oxygen, therefore allowing a greater amount to remain in the blood. This addresses her magnesium deficiency, which would reduce the efficiency of oxygen delivery to her tissues. As for the family history of diabetes, let’s start with two definitions: diabetes is a build up of glucose in the blood, and carbohydrates are just long strings of glucose molecules. By increasing the body’s use of carbohydrates, this drug also decreases the glucose build up in the blood.

If her health claims are legitimate, Sharapova shouldn’t receive as much backlash for taking the drug, as it is proven to alleviate her ailments. However, with a drug that can potentially improve an athlete’s performance despite it’s primary function being fundamentally medical, problems are created for those attempting to uphold the ethical standards set by the sports industry in regards to drugs.

Let’s take into consideration Novak Djokovic’s hyperbaric oxygen pod (a little chamber with low pressure — simulating the body being at a high altitude, which allows the body to increase production of erythropoietin that increases oxygen delivery to tissues.) The exogenous administration of erythropoietin is also on the banned substances list by WADA, yet no one is questioning his ethically ambiguous training methods.

In the end, Sharapova took the upper hand by coming out and revealing the results of the drug test publicity. It’s still unclear whether it was to clear her conscience and provide medical reasoning to her indiscretion, or to vie for leniency in her penalty with this move. The shadiest part of her explanation was the fact that she ignored two emails — both sent months apart (September and January) — regarding first the investigation regarding meldonium, then to declare the subsequent banning of the drug. Despite the reasoning behind this, I believe Sharapova will be seeing less damaging consequences, if she chooses to continue her career.

But that seems completely dependent on her finding a hotel with suitable carpeting for such announcement.