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The Prevalence Of Doping Scandals In The Sports World


Time now for sports.


MARTIN: Tennis player Maria Sharapova has now joined a growing group of professional athletes with a doping scandal hanging over their heads. She tested positive to a recently banned substance. It's called meldonium. It happened at the Australian Open. She said she was taking it for a family history of diabetes and didn't know the drug had been banned. Sharapova is probably one of the most visible athletes in the world, but just how prevalent is doping among those athletes without a Nike contract? Let's ask Mike Pesca. He's the host of "The Gist."

Good morning.

JOE PESCA: Or even with a Nike contract.

MARTIN: Yeah, right? I mean, it seems like every time we turn around, there's another professional athlete being accused of doping. So what's going on?

PESCA: Well, in the case of Sharapova, everything you said is true, but the context is - sure, this was just newly banned. But everyone who looked at drugs and looked at doping said, well, we know what the drug is doing, and though it has some non-performative purposes, in fact, this drug was first invented and one of the first uses was to help Russian soldiers in the high mountains of Afghanistan because it helps with oxygen intake, exactly what a lot of illegal drugs do. So finally, it got to the tennis list. It was banned in track and field. It got to the tennis list, and the word went out. You've got to stop taking this. And so, you know, Sharapova is saying - oh, I was taking this for real reasons and I just missed a memo. You know, even her excuse - that I was taking it for diabetes - you're supposed to take it for four to six weeks. She was taking it continuously. It was obviously helping her performance. I'm not saying it makes her a bad person, but it was clear what she was doing. This drug was helping her performance.

MARTIN: So you say that this - it's affecting not just the big sports, but things we don't pay attention to. There was some race in track and field that caught your eye.

PESCA: Yeah, this is the thing. When we talk about this, I think sometimes our discussion hinges on the personality involved. I mean, we usually - when we hear about sports and a scandal, it's via a superstar, right - so a Peyton Manning allegation or, here, Sharapova. And then even if it's not - even if it's a journeyman Major League Baseball player, those guys are millionaires.

Well what about the 1,500 meters in the last London Olympics? Earlier this week, the silver medalist of that race was found to have cheated, which means - if you go down the list of who cheated in the 1,500 meters - the gold medalist, the silver medalist, the fourth-place finisher the fifth, seventh and ninth-place finishers. So this means that an American runner, Shannon Rowbury, who thought she finished sixth and was gutted and cried and was despondent and actually said this just means that the best I could possibly give isn't good enough. No, that was all a lie because all of her competitors - or so many of her competitors were cheating. And the Olympics haven't gotten in touch with her and said here's your silver medal, but she clearly deserves the silver medal as the clean one in that race.

MARTIN: But so - I don't understand. If everyone is doing this...

PESCA: That's the thing. That's the thing.

MARTIN: ...I mean, shouldn't you just change the standards or change the rules?

PESCA: That's exactly the thing. I think that the best argument against cheating is not that our sports aren't entertaining or fair, and it's not that the people who are doing it are bad people. It's that not - literally, not everyone is doing it. But if you create a norm where it becomes hard not to do it, you're forcing people who don't want to cheat to cheat. You're forcing people who don't want to hurt their bodies to hurt their bodies. We don't know 100 percent that Shannon Rowbury didn't do it, but she seems, like, as sympathetic a victim as there is - not a pitcher who gave up a home run to Barry Bonds, but a runner who tried her hardest, thought her hardest wasn't the best, but it turns out it was drugs that was keeping her off the medal stand.

MARTIN: Mike Pesca - host of "The Gist" on Slate. Thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.