ITF to step up anti-doping measures

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It’s a complete coincidence that the week new anti-doping measures are announced is the same week Maria Sharapova returns from a 15-month doping ban, right?

The International Tennis Federation announced Friday that as of May 1, it will step up its drug-testing program on every level.

The budget will be increased some 50 per cent, to approximately $4.5 million US plus administrative costs. The volume of testing will increase and, perhaps more crucially, the sample storage policy will be strengthened.

The ITF reported 4,899 samples were tested in 2016. That will rise to “up to” 8,000 samples in 2017. Their plan is to collect more – more urine and blood samples, more out-of-competition samples, and to test at more events.

The federation will increase the number of players in the International Registered Testing Pool to approximately 250. And it will increase the number of samples placed into long-term storage. The preservation of those samples allows for re-testing at a later date, as detection methods become more sophisticated or are developed to better detect certain types of banned substances.

We’ve seen the effect of that that in recent months. Anti-doping authorities are only now catching athletes who didn’t complete clean in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and the 2012 Games in London.

The ITF says stored samples from top-ranked players will be increased “up to 50 percent”.

Precise information still lacking

The information is still somewhat limited, the numbers vague. The ITF doesn’t indicate in the press release how many players already were in the testing pool before this planned increase. Nor does it indicate how many samples are currently stored, nor a precise definition of “top-ranked” players.

As a basis for comparison, the international cycling federation (UCI) regularly updates a comprehensive list of cyclists included in the registered testing pool on its website, sorted by country. The latest list (updated Friday) has the total number of registered cyclists at 1,142, from 60 different countries.

Of course, cycling has had exponentially more high-profile players banned for doping than tennis has. Despite all the previous years of testing, Sharapova is by far the biggest fish they’ve ever caught. The most recent case, a month ago, was an obscure 17-year-old from Uzbekistan named Arsan Arashov.

The ITF statistics for 2016 only specify a range for each player. They also don’t include tests by the players’ national anti-doping entities, or any testing done at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. It is at best not comprehensive, at worst scattershot and vague.

Even Sharapova’s situation was more a timing issue than anything else. The substance she was banned for, meldonium, was legal until Jan. 1 of last year.

The press-release quote from ITF President David Haggerty:

“On behalf of the partners in the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme, we welcome this strengthening of the sport’s anti-doping efforts. Protecting the integrity of tennis is an ongoing priority of the governing bodies of tennis to ensure that tennis is and remains a clean sport, and these enhancements will make a positive contribution to achieving that priority”.

Read the press release here.

New drugs monitored in ’17

The ITF is monitoring some fairly well-known products for 2017. Remember, meldonium was originally placed on this monitoring list for 2015 before being promoted to the banned substances list for 2016.

Codeine, caffeine and nicotine are included on the list.

Also included, among others, are:

Buproprion (brand names Wellbutrin and Zyban). It’s primarily used as an antidepressant and a stop-smoking medication.

Synephrine (sometimes known as bitter orange). It’s already on the NCAA’s banned list.

Telmisartan, a hypertension drug.

How many will end up on the 2018 banned list is not known (we’re thinking they probably have bigger fish to fry than caffeine and nicotine).

(Photo from the ITF’s website)

On the day Sharapova returns, Bouchard throws shade

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When athletes offer a frank, unfiltered opinion these days, they do so at their own risk.

So credit to players like Roberta Vinci, Agnieszka Radwanska and, today, Eugenie Bouchard for risking the wrath of the Sharapova legions to speak out about how they feel about her return.

Bouchard, especially, might have minced words, knowing the serious slump she’s in at the moment is easy pickings for major backlash. But the 23-year-old has looked up to Sharapova since she was a little girl – wanted to be her, in all of the superficial ways in which Sharapova is famous.

So, she had her say in Istanbul.

Bouchard’s statement was stronger than most of the others out there, most of whom merely answered a question about whether Sharapova deserved wild cards as she returns from a 15-month doping suspension.

It’s naive in many ways. Not all doping violations are equal; Sharapova hadn’t exactly been caught taking stanazolol for a decade. So to lump every single circumstance under that banner is not thinking it through. But a lot of people out there are going to agree with her.

Interview released for maximum impact

The interview clearly was done before the start of the tournament. So it doesn’t appear Bouchard was just looking for some extra attention on a day all was focused on Sharapova.

Of course the TV network waited for today, as Sharapova returns to action, to post it (it’s the final question).

Even the title on that YouTube video is grist for the mill, because that came nearly three years ago.

Here’s what Bouchard said.

Bouchard“I don’t think that’s right. She’s a cheater and so, to me, I don’t think a cheater in any sport should be allowed to play that sport again. It’s so unfair to all the the others players who do it the right way and are true. I just think from the WTA it sends the wrong message to young kids: cheat, and we’ll welcome you back with open arms.

“I don’t think that’s right, and definitely not someone I can say I look up to any more, because it’s definitely ruined it for me a little bit.”

The rest of the interview is so banal as to be nap-inducing. So that strong stand definitely came out of nowhere, unsolicited.

Bouchard has voiced this opinion before.

When Sharapova first announced she had taken meldonium and failed a doping test, just at the start of Indian Wells last year, Bouchard said much the same thing.