TEN-SPO-SHARAPOVA
Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova speaks at a press conference in Los Angeles, on March 7, 2016.  / AFP / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

The world was shocked when world #11 and five-time grand slam singles champion, Maria Sharapova, was suspended from tennis competition for use of a banned substance, meldonium. The tennis world reacted with scorn for the former world #1 women’s tennis player:

  • John McEnroe: “It would be hard to believe that no one in her camp, the 25 or 30 people that work for her, or Maria herself, had (any) idea that (meldonium had been banned).”
  • Jennifer Capriati: “I didn’t have the high priced team of [doctors] that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up.”

Capriati is making the most powerful case against doping from an athlete’s perspective. Taking banned or illegal drugs to enhance performance is cheating. And to not call out cheats is unfair to those who are not taking drugs that give advantage.

Sponsors dropped Sharapova like an overripe fruit with maggots inside. All except Head, the racquet manufacturer.

According to this statement from HEAD, “We question WADA’s decision to add meldonium to its banned substances list in the manner it did; we believe the correct action by WADA would have been to impose a dosage limitation only. In the circumstances we would encourage WADA to release scientific studies which validates their claim that meldonium should be a banned substance.”

WADA is the World Anti-Doping Association, the international governing body that establishes what athletes may or may not put into their bodies. The president of WADA, Dick Pound responded to HEAD’s statement to the BBC:

“First and foremost, Head is a manufacturer and seller of tennis rackets, among other things. So far as I’m aware, it’s not a medical expert and not in a position to amend the world anti-doping code. As for its view as a commercial racket seller as to whether meldonium should be on the list of prohibited substances or not, quite frankly I prefer the scientific opinion of medical experts to the commercial interest of somebody telling tennis rackets using a player who is subject to whatever discipline is called for under the world anti-doping code. A complete conflict of interest on its part, combined with a lack of knowledge of the particular substance.”

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World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Canadian lawyer Dick Pound / AFP PHOTO/PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU (Photo credit should read PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP/Getty Images)

That is a powerful and damning retort from Pound, whose efforts helped lead to the suspension of Russia’s entire track and field team from international competition, including the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics.

And yet, this is what confuses me. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus among “medical experts” as to whether meldonium actually enhances performance in athletes.

This New York Times article explains the science of how meldonium works. In short, burning glucose in your body releases more energy than burning fat. The “science” states that meldonium will work to encourage the burning of glucose, not fat. So when you’re oxygen starved, a situation many high-performance athletes find themselves in when they exert themselves, the meldonium will give them a glucose burn and a bigger burst of oxygen.

Meldonium box
A box of meldonium pills, legally marketed as Mildronate primarily in Eastern Europe.

The same New York Times article, entitled “Effects of Meldonium on Athletes are Hazy“, quotes Dr Eric Brass of UCLA, who questions the correlation between meldonium and greater athletic performance.

“In general, if one is involved in short-duration, sprint-type activity, one tends to use glucose because it is more available and it is an efficient way to generate energy quickly,” said Dr. Eric Brass, a professor of medicine at U.C.L.A. Still, Brass said it was not clear if that was what was really happening in athletes. “The science behind many of these performance-enhancing compounds is limited, biased and subject to misinterpretation,” he said. Several of the studies on meldonium were done on rats and published only in Russian.

This is why doping stories outrage me and put me to sleep at the same time. I definitely

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Robinson Leonard Ali
Sugar Ray Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali in Las Vegas in 1977. Both Leonard (1976) and Ali (1960), won gold medals in their respective Olympics before going on to glory at the professional ranks.
In 1988, when tennis debuted at the Seoul Olympic Games, allowing professionals to enter the competition, the gold medalist in individual play was Miloslav Mecir of Czechoslovakia. While he defeated Stefan Edberg, whom Mecir had lost to at Wimbledon that year, the Olympic tournament was missing quite a few stars of the time: Mats Wilander, Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Boris Becker for example. As I understand it, the Olympics provided no ranking points or remuneration so many of the pro stars were not motivated to be an Olympian.

In 1992, when FIBA allowed professionals to participate in the Olympics, many of the teams were transformed with players from the NBA and other international professional leagues excited to be Olympians. With Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird headlining a team of unprecedented talent, Team USA swept through the competition with ease to win gold.

In May, 2016, the International Boxing Organization (IBO) will vote whether to allow professionals to compete in the Olympic Games going forward. Presumably, the reason is the same for every other international sports governing body – the very best in their sport should compete at the Olympics.

So if the IBO gives pro boxers the thumbs up for the Olympics, will the reaction by the pros be like tennis in 1988, or like basketball in 1992?

The Philippines have never won a gold medal in the Olympics. So why not Manny Pacquiao? Even though he was prepared to hang up his gloves after his next fight with Timothy Bradley in April, he has publicly said that he would step up if asked. “It would be my honor to represent the country in the Olympics,” Pacquiao told Agence France-Presse. “If I would be asked to represent boxing, why not? I would do everything for my country.”

manny pacquiao
Manny Pacquiao thinking about Rio.
Will others pros step up into the ring in Rio?

This isn’t clear yet – some will be bothered by the lack of financial incentives, and others may be enticed by the national glory. But one thing is clear – boxing is a brutal sport. And as pointed out in this discussion board devoted to boxing, people don’t just lose in boxing matches…they can get beat up. And if you’re a pro, you’re sacrificing potentially lucrative but limited paydays to possible injury. If you’re an amateur, you may end up getting battered way more than what a fellow amateur could do to you.

Bud Collins and Dick Enberg
NBC announcer Bud Collins, left, with Dick Enberg in the television booth at the All England Club for the 1982 Wimbledon. Photo: Walter Looss JR. /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

I was a big tennis fan when I was growing up in Queens, New York, getting lessons at Cunningham Park, and playing with friends on the awful concrete court on the grounds of the Queens General Hospital. And I remember in the 1970s watching Breakfast at Wimbledon on NBC, with Bud Collins, when Bjorn Borg was the dominant male tennis player of the time, routinely defeating Jimmy Connors, Guillermo Vilas and Roscoe Tanner. And I remember the epic five-setter in 1980 when John McEnroe lost to Borg at Wimbledon. Bud Collins was always there.

Collins passed away on March 4, 2016.

But what I just learned is that Bud Collins, who essentially began his journalistic career as a college student for his school paper, went, somewhat on a whim, to the 1948 London Olympic Games as a spectator. The goal was to cheer on a fellow Baldwin-Wallace College student, William Harrison Dillard.

A few years ago, Collins wrote this wonderful article for ESPN, recalling his early days in Berea, Ohio, where he literally delivered newspapers (Cleveland Plain Dealer) on the Baldwin-Wallace campus and its environs as a 14-year old. When he became a BW student, world-class hurdler Dillard also decided to join BW. Dillard could have gone to Ohio State, the alma mater of Jesse Owens, the last American to win Olympic gold in the 100 meters in 1936, but as Collins relates in the article, Dillard wanted to stay closer to home.

harrison dillard 1948
William Harrison Dillard in 1948 at the London Summer Games.

 

Collins continues to write this amazing story of how Dillard was pretty much expected to win gold in the 110 meter hurdles easily at the re-boot Olympics in 1948, the first Olympics since Berlin in 1936, postponed for 12 years due to world war. (in fact, Dillard served in the US military, seeing significant action on the Italian front.) But for some reason, at the Olympic trials, Dillard competed poorly and would not be asked to compete as a hurdler. He did place third in the 100 meters, so was put on the team to possibly compete in the 400-meter relay team.

So when young Bud Collins, and his editor on the school paper, decided to use their savings and borrow money so they could go to London, there was only a slim possibility of watching their buddy, “Bones” Dillard, compete at the 1948 Olympic Games. As it turned out, in a London still climbing out of the rubble of World War II, Dillard was crowned the fastest man in the world, and a budding journalist named Bud Collins was there.

Thank you Bud, for the memories.