Maria Sharapova won her first major tennis tournament – Wimbledon – at just 17 years old. She became world number one the following year. For the last ten years (Maria is 28) she has been amongst the very best tennis players in the world – and is, perhaps, one of the best players to have ever played the game.
There is, though, one small problem. She has just failed a drugs test.
She tested positive for a banned substance called meldonium at this year’s Australian Open tournament. Meldonium is a drug that increases the amount of oxygen in the blood. More oxygen means muscles can work harder for longer – and this allows athletes who cheat with drugs like meldonium to gain an unfair advantage over their opponents.
The problem with Maria Sharapova is that she has been taking meldonium for the last ten years, but the drug has only been banned for the last six months.
Athletes have known of the properties of meldonium for a long time. It was, after all, developed to treat genuinely ill patients who had heart problems – and it helped their blood flow and the amount of oxygen (to keep them alive) in it. It’s when it’s in the hands (or blood) of athletes that it becomes unfair.
This raises an interesting question: is it cheating even if you don’t actually break any rules of a sport?
Many people – including you who are reading this article – play and enjoy sport. When you play sport, you moan and complain when people you’re playing against cheat, even if you yourself try to get away with as much as you can. But that’s clearly cheating – everyone knows what the rules say (even if they try and break them).
The question is – and this is the problem like the one Maria Sharapova has got –what happens if the rules don’t say you can’t do something (like take a medicine or drug that boosts your performance) that isn’t actually banned?
But the problem for Maria Sharapova is even more tricky. As soon as the tennis authorities realised what meldonium does for athletes, they banned it. Sharapova has been labelled a cheat – even though the last nine and a half years she has been winning tournaments without breaking the rules. Complicated, isn’t it?
So what do we do? Do we say that only in January 2016 she was a cheat? Or do we say that she has been cheating for the last ten years (even though the drug wasn’t banned)?
Personally, according to the rules, I don’t think that Sharapova is a cheat. For the nine and a half years she has taken meldonium, it hasn’t been on the banned list. Athletes do all sorts of things to get advantages over their opponents: from wearing the latest kit and shoes, to getting specific diet advice, or training is different countries. Taking an allowed medicine for her health is, I don’t think, any different to that.
But, whether she took the (legal at the time) drug to improve her performance… well, that’s another matter.
Article written by Ben Egerton
This is an opinion-based article designed to provoke debate, discussion and further inquiry
amongst your students:
Critical Thinking Challenges:
1. Do you think that Maria Sharapova should be called a cheat?
2. Is there a difference between drugs and medicine?
3. Explain the difference between ‘playing in the spirit of the game’ and ‘playing to the laws of the game’.
4. Can an athlete be called a drugs cheat if the rules over what medicines are allowed change during their career?
5. Why do sports players cheat?
6. How do you feel if you find out that one of your sporting heroes cheats in order to win?
1. The history of sport is full of athletes who have been found to have taken drugs. Read about your favourite sports and find out if any of the players have histories of playing unfairly – either through drug cheating or any other kind of cheating.
2. Think about a sport you play or watch. What rule changes do you think need to happen in order to make it even more fair for everyone who is taking part? What other rules might you change to make the game easier or better to play?