This week sees the return of the former darling of tennis, Maria Sharapova, after a 15-month drugs ban from professional sport. The highest earning woman in global sport plays as a wild card in the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart from Wednesday.
In the wake of her positive test early last year for a recently banned substance, meldonium, her fans and other members of the ‘tennis family’, including some sponsors and media, sought a possible explanation to clear Sharapova’s name. One line was rarely heard – “The testers finally caught up”.
Herein lies the problem anti-doping authorities face: positives tests do not prove intent to enhance performance illegally. The discovery of a new drug that provides an unfair athletic advantage, followed by a spate of positives for that substance should increase faith in the job the authorities are doing. Yet a prevailing attitude among many is to entertain the myriad excuses put forth by athletes for their drug use: administrational errors, innocent mistakes, existing medical problems. The narrative becomes skewed.
The meldonium scandal is not unique. In the early Noughties there were similarly hundreds of positive tests for another substance, an anabolic steroid, nandrolone, across a range of sports from football to tennis, from athletics to martial arts to baseball. Arguably the two most famous positive tests (famous now, at least) belonged to a then football player, now manager, Pep Guardiola.