In one of the most awaited matches at this year’s Olympics, the American swimmer Lilly King beat the controversial Russian Yulia Efimova in the 100m breaststroke race, claiming that one doesn’t need drugs to win. Efimova got silver but at the expense of boos from the audience and her competitors.
Yulia Efimova was earlier tested positive for the drug meldonium which got banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at the start of this year. However, after facing a short suspension by the International Swimming Federation, aka FINA, she was absolved when WADA admitted that the positive result might have been due to the residual drug in her system, taken before the ban.
After winning the game, Lilly King said, “I hope I (made a statement) that we can still compete clean and do well at the Olympic Games and that’s how it should be.” Her nemesis had once before been tested positive for a drug, DHEA. But this time, Andy Bull argues, that the people who deserve to be booed are those at FINA. The Federation had made a premature decision by banning Efimova without knowing how long the drug stays in the system and tainted the athlete only before sending her for to the Aquatics Stadium in Rio.
Previously famous examples of doping scandals include Lance Armstrong, the seven times winner of Tour de France race who admitted to taking a number of different hormones like erythropoietin, testosterone and even human growth hormone along with blood transfusions. Famous Australian cricketer Shane Warne was found to be using diuretic, a substance that hides other drugs in doping tests. But no other example could be more relevant today than the Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova.
The Meldonium Storm
Maria Sharapova was involved with the same drug as Yulia Efimova, meldonium. It is not FDA approved and is supposedly meant for people with heart diseases. The drug improves the overall blood circulation and improves respiration under extreme stress. The drug just got banned by WADA.
The creator of meldonium, Ivars Kalvins of the Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis, argues that the drug gives no performance boost and is in fact supposed to save athletes form heart problems during their rigorous exercise regimes. Russian channels have even claimed that the effects of better blood circulation and rapid recovery from intense exercise seen in meldonium are no different than those observed from cupping techniques.
Even the Russian President Putin has an opinion: “This substance was never considered as doping. It doesn’t influence the result. That’s totally certain. It just keeps the heart muscles in good condition under high load.” However, the International Court of Arbitration for Sport saw things differently when it banned Sharapova for two years. The fact is that there has not been any conclusive and reliable research done regarding meldonium; neither are its medical benefits proven nor is any performance boost confirmed. There is no data to ensure us of its side effects, which almost every drug possesses. Hence, the drug was never approved by the FDA.
When making the ruling, the International Court of Arbitration relied on clues it picked up from Maria’s behavior. The court argued, “The manner of its use, on match days and when undertaking intensive training, is only consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels.” Especially so because she kept the use hidden from her doctor. This was generally the reason why the drug was banned in the first place, not because there has been a significant evidence for boost it provides, but because players seemed to use it with the intention of a gain in performance.
An investigation last year by Hajo Seppelt revealed that a vast 17% of all Russian athletes had meldonium in their bodies. But meldonium is definitely not the first to be widespread in Russian athletes. An investigation by Richard McLaren revealed that there was a thorough state sponsored doping going on at the 2012 Olympics. Even the Russian intelligence agency was involved in a Hollywood-esque operation — a mix of metenolone, trenbolone and oxandrolone was served in whisky and martini to the athletes. The alcohol helped in the uptake of the steroids.
Besides giving a performance boost by helping gain muscle mass and endurance, anabolic steroids have a diverse and serious range of side effects i.e., from hair loss to heart attack. Surely the state did not do justice to their own athletes.
If nothing else, Lilly King’s victory should be taken as a proof that without drugs one can make a name for himself/herself at the Olympics arena and that substance abuse is not a prerequisite for great performance.