Maria, Meldonium and Morals: When Excellence is All That Matters

In examining Maria Sharapova’s doping issue, Abir Pal draws a fine line between striving and excellence in sports.

Updated12 Mar 2016, 02:34 AM IST
Opinion
3 min read

Maria Sharapova isn’t the first well-known sportsperson to be indicted for doping and she certainly won’t be the last. As long as the relentless perform-or-perish ethos of the competitive sports persist, it is only natural for champions wanting to sustain their winning edge.

Which brings us to the larger question: what is so wrong in using drugs to enhance performance? How is it very different (and very wrong) from using high-tech running shoes or graphite rackets? Or if that seems too straightforward: relying on special diets and supplements and surgery?

The line between cultivating natural gifts and corrupting them with artifice may not always be clear, according to Michael J Sandel who has been pondering over these questions at length as Harvard University professor of Philosophy and Morals.

He says: “The problem with drugs is that they provide a short cut, a way to win without striving. But striving is not the point of sports; excellence is.”



Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts during a match   at 2015 French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros, in Paris, France, on June 1, 2015. (Photo: IANS)
Maria Sharapova of Russia reacts during a match at 2015 French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros, in Paris, France, on June 1, 2015. (Photo: IANS)

Why are Certain Enhancements Admissible?

And indeed if we agree with Sandel that it is excellence that we are chasing then why is it wrong to use ‘enhancements’ and, more importantly, why are certain ‘enhancements’ okay, but others are not? What about innovative training?

Nike’s high-altitude training programme at Oregon for marathon runners and EPO, a hormone produced by the kidney that stimulates red blood cell production, both boost aerobic endurance by increasing the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen, but the ruling on which was objectionable was a complex and lengthy task for international monitoring agencies.

Tiger Woods’ Lasik surgery to remedy his eye-sight is acceptable but other innovative surgeries may not pass muster.

Snapshot

Sharapova Doping Row

  • In the competitive environment of sports, where excellence is all that matters, question is why usage of enhancements is unethical.
  • Doping debate becomes more convoluted when one takes into account the tussle between the natural talent and the trait acquired through hard work.
  • With rapid progress in eugenics it will be very difficult to distinguish between the ‘naturally gifted’ and the enhanced.
  • In Sharapova’s case, for nine years she takes a drug and no one raises an eyebrow and then overnight she finds herself embroiled in a doping row.
There is a natural human tendency to romanticise (and celebrate) grit and determination especially when it comes to pushing the limits of the human body. (Photo: IANS)
There is a natural human tendency to romanticise (and celebrate) grit and determination especially when it comes to pushing the limits of the human body. (Photo: IANS)

Naturally Gifted Versus Acquired Trait

Extensively detailing the instances of rampant drug-intake in international sports and how the game today is not about an athlete taking drugs but about who can pass the drug test, author Malcolm Gladwell in a New Yorker piece titled ‘Drugstore Athlete’ says:

Even as we assert this distinction on the playing field, though, we defy it in our own lives. We have come to prefer a world where the distractable take Ritalin, the depressed take Prozac, and the unattractive get cosmetic surgery to a world ruled, arbitrarily, by those fortunate few who were born focused, happy, and beautiful.

Muddying the water is the widely debated tussle between ‘natural’ or inherited talent and one acquired predominantly through hard work and by the striving ones. There is a natural human tendency to romanticise (and celebrate) grit and determination especially when it comes to pushing the limits of the human body.

But with rapid strides in eugenics and designer babies just round the corner it will be very difficult to tell the difference between the ‘natural gifted’ and the enhanced.

In her statement, Maria Sharapova says that oversight led to her consuming medicine prescribed for diabetes and low magnesium levels. (Photo: iStock)
In her statement, Maria Sharapova says that oversight led to her consuming medicine prescribed for diabetes and low magnesium levels. (Photo: iStock)

Need to Introspect

In a statement the five-time Grand Slam champion says that she was prescribed a medication given to those suffering from diabetes and low magnesium and the oversight on her part lies in not corroborating whether the chemical was on the banned list, as updated by the International Tennis Federation every year.

For nine years an athlete takes a drug and it is perfectly all right and then overnight she is branded a ‘doper’.

Surely, the entire sporting fraternity could benefit from some perspective here.

(The writer is a journalist and communication professional based in Kolkata)

Also read:

Mistake or Not, Tennis Needs to be Ruthless With Maria Sharapova

Things to Know About Meldonium, the Drug Maria Sharapova Took

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Published: 11 Mar 2016, 01:16 PM IST
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