Saturday, 19 March 2016

A Fool’s Gold – Abusing Science in Sport

Photo of Maria Sharapova by Yan Nasilevich , from Flickr

On March 8th, another major doping scandal hit the headlines; Maria Sharapova, the highest-paid female in sport, revealed in a press conference that she had failed a drugs test. She had failed the test for taking the recently banned drug Meldonium, for “health reasons”. Sharapova stated that she had been taking the drug for 10 years as a prescription from her family doctor. 

The use of performance enhancing drugs by top athletes is not a new headline, with Russia being banned from international competition last year, due to wide-scale doping of athletes and cover-ups by the state.

However, this is one of the first times that an athlete has publicly revealed they failed a doping test – this was apparently, a hope to make herself look “better” and convince the public she was taking the drug for health purposes and not as a performance enhancing drug – whether you believe her or not is another story.

On the same day as Sharapova’s announcement (and 10-day provisional ban), six other athletes were also banned for the use of the same drug, including other Russian athletes (seems like the Russian doping scandal was even more widespread than was first thought).

Meldonium (also called mildronate – Sharapova was using the drug under this name) is used in the treatment of heart conditions like heart failure, and ischaemia (this is a lack of blood to an area of the body and is a major cause of stroke) because the drug causes an increases blood flow around the body. If you increase the blood flow then you can help stop these conditions.

Sharapova said that she used this drug to treat her irregular heartbeat and because of her family history of diabetes; not sure you should be playing tennis if you have a heart condition. Also in America (where Sharapova lives and trains), Meldonium isn't licensed for use. It would be interesting to know why her “family doctor” would prescribe her a drug that isn’t approved by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) which aims are to stop unsafe or untested drugs being used by patients – if I was her, I’d get a new doctor.

The reason why Meldonium was added to the list of banned substances is because WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) found evidence that athletes were using the drug as a performance enhancer – increased blood to muscles means more oxygen and glucose is carried to the muscles. Athletes believe that taking this drug means that you could work harder for longer and also recover from injuries quicker; Sharapova has been known to be injury prone.

Another drug that has been abused in a wide range of sports is growth hormone (GH). GH is a hormone (something released from a gland into the bloodstream to travel around the body affecting cells) that is made by the pituitary gland in the brain and affects almost all the tissues in the body directly. It increases the growth of cells and increases cell division to make new cells, especially muscle and bone cells.

In 2007, an enquiry into its use by baseball players (in the US) showed that many athletes use GH because the players believed that it helped them to recover from injury and fatigue quicker; it was also, at that time, undetectable and wasn’t on the WADA list of banned substances – essentially is was almost perfect in the 'cheating' athletes eyes.

Drugs = Money? Photo by Images Money, on Flickr

Previously the only evidence that athletes were using GH was from stories by the people using it (mainly athletes and body-builders). It was first added to the list of prohibited substances in 1989 however, it was only until 2004 that the first test for detecting its abuse was introduced, perhaps signifying it’s apparent increase in use in competitive sport.

It’s a huge shame that these potentially life-changing drugs for patients, suffering real conditions are being abused by athletes. It also highlights that there are huge time gaps between athletes realising that some drugs could better their performance (and spreading this news to other athletes) and WADA and scientists being able to prove that these are indeed performance enhancing, and developing a doping test for these drugs.

It also raises the big question of the level playing field of sport – but we’ll leave that to the policy makers, athletes and governing bodies to figure out.

If you have any opinions on this story I’d love to hear them, so please comment below!!

Follow @ALifeinBioMed on Twitter for daily updates, news stories and opinions

 Disclaimer: All information was correct at the time of writing. I do not take credit for any of the investigative journalism that was done to get the information that was used in this article and any information used can be found on their original websites found in the references. 


Richard I.G. Holt, Detecting growth hormone abuse in athletes (2011), Anal Bioanal Chem 401:449-462 DOI 10.1007/s00216-011-5068-2