Meldonium in Moscow

The 2016 cycling season started of pretty good, with the first doping case so early on in the year when Vorganov was caught using Meldonium early on in February. This news of course hit the front page of all sports related sites. Cycling is known by all as the black sheep of sports when it comes to doping. Lately though, the tide has been turning a bit. Not to a sport in particular, but to a country: Russia.

Thirteen athletes have been caught this year using Meldonium, amongst whom of course Eduard Vorganov. Meldonium is a drug that is medically used to treat several heart and vein problems. It is used mostly in the Eastern part of Europe and in Asia. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved the drug for use at all. Although it was initially thought that the drug wasn’t performance enhancing, studies showed that the medical effects of doping can in fact be beneficial to athletes. This led to WADA banning the drug as of January first of this year.

As of this moment thirteen athletes have officially been caught using Meldonium since the moment it has been banned and some reporting up to 60 cases are under investigation. Eight of the thirteen athletes that were officially caught are Russian; the other offenders come from Ukraine (2), Georgia, Ethiopia and Sweden. The most famous of all the athletes that have been caught is, of course, Maria Sharapova who tested positive during the opening grand slam of this season in Australia. But, as a Dutchman, I would also like to mention the five, no, four-time world speed skating champion Pavel Kulizhnikov. Amongst all offenders there are two Olympic gold medals, two Olympic silver medals, countless world and European championships and medals and some world records.

It is not just because of the recent surge in Meldonium cases that we see a rise in Russian offenders. Last year, the International Athletics Federation (IAAF) provisionally suspended the Russian member federation (ARAF) for the institutionalized doping usage within the federation. This suspension is still ongoing and with the Olympic Games getting closer every day, the time is ticking away for ARAF to come with a reform plan or they will risk not being allowed to compete in Rio.

Cheating has been an issue in basically every sport since they were around really, heck in the olden days even training was considered unsportsmanlike. We’ve since had great Olympic champions being stripped of their medals because of doping and even more of them were caught at some point later on in life, casting a shadow on their previous achievements (I mean, just look at this list).

This morning however, I heard something that made me stop and think for a second. I want to point everyone to an interview by the BBC with a Latvian doctor who helped to develop the drug that is all over the news right now. The doctor in question basically claims that without the use of doping, we will see a massive increase in deaths amongst pro athletes now that their bodies are left on their own to deal with the massive stress that is their life. Besides the fact that this claim about Meldonium is clearly not true, as western athletes have been getting by just fine on other substances, it gives us an insight in the institutionalized way some nations deal with Doping. It’s an organized scheme under the guise of protecting the athletes.

Now I’ve always thought of doping as something individual athletes or teams would do – a risk they would take – for fame, glory, success and mostly money, not something Nations would force on their citizens. Institutionalized doping is something we have seen in cycling too of course, with the absolute height in professionalism during the Lance Armstrong years. But I feel this is different because of the federation’s involvement, rather than commercial motives the nation's pride was at stake. We have been in a situation for too long now where young athletes are being prepared for a pro athlete’s life with doping – or engines – and this needs to stop, for obvious reasons.

The reactions to the recent scandals around Russian athletes and federations in trouble have really impressed me. For once, doping cases outside of cycling have been getting a lot of attention and the rest of the world finally gets an insight in how widespread institutionalized doping is. Especially the reaction by the IAAF, in which they have taken a clear stance against institutionalized doping, deserves respect.

It is clearly something that the UCI could have learned from, fool me once right?