SIEGEL: Doping may be legal, but it can also be unethical

Clearer rules specifying which substances are permissible would help athletes and their leagues

In the early weeks of September, the Fancy Bears hacking group released data from the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, database, showcasing their list of athletes who use banned substances legally. The revealing of the Therapeutic Use Exemptions list, or TUEs, shocked the world of sports. The hackers targeted top athletes, such as Simon Biles, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams, in the attempt to expose some scandal that had been hiding behind the private doors of the WADA. While these athletes have all been granted approval of their drug use and have adhered to the anti-doping authorities, this exposure erupted serious ethical debate as to the use of banned drugs, regardless of their subsequent legality. The WADA needs to reevaluate and explicitly outline its doping laws so there is a mutual global understanding of the expectations of a world-class athlete, for there currently exists a gray area in the sports law — the Therapeutic Use Exemption.

This past spring, Maria Sharapova, a world-renowned tennis player and model, confessed to taking meldonium during her performance at the Australian Open. Sharapova began taking this drug in 2006 in an effort to combat her magnesium deficiency and irregular EKG results. Meldonium, a drug that facilitates blood flow, thus increasing exercise capacity, was only banned in Sept. 2015 after having been monitored for several years. Sharapova’s lawyer, John Haggerty, contends, “In higher doses, melodium can serve as a performance-enhancer.” Yet, Sharapova was taking a prescribed dose, strictly for her health. While she did fail to fully adhere to the doping policy once changes were made to the list of prohibited drugs, Sharapova is suffering a two-year withdraw from her profession as well as sponsor drops for using a drug that could arguably be considered one of therapeutic use, thus exempting her from punishment.

This is where the doping laws become unclear. If she were using the banned medication for the sole purpose of maintaining her health, Sharapova should be exempt like the other athletes using illegal drugs for their illnesses of the like. But that is not the case. Owen Gibson, the Guardian’s chief sports correspondent, agrees the line is rather unclear: “It’s blurred, it’s always shifting and it looks very different depending on where you stand as an athlete, as a coach, as an administrator, as a fan… The very words Therapeutic Use Exemption understandably cause an involuntary raise of the eyebrows.”

Former professional cyclist David Millar recounts his doping days, reminding us performance-enhancing drugs ruin the beauty and nature of competition. To abuse the system to vie for an advantage with illegal means is defamatory to the sport, the competitors and the fans. The temptation to get a leg up exists, and it is fair to say that we will not always choose to do the right thing, but we cannot think, “Never mind if it’s unethical, as long as it’s not illegal.” While TUEs may make a banned drug legal to a competitor, that does not mean taking them is acting ethically.

While ethical standards can be monitored and strongly encouraged, it is primarily up to the competitor to either make ethical action a priority or succumb to the innate drive for gold, despite the infractions along the way to the top. The TUE does have good intentions in its efforts to keep athletes healthy, but it should only take effect in the cases in which the drug is absolutely and unmistakably required for an athlete’s wellbeing. Only then, as David Millar proposes, should the TUE permit its use outside of competition: “For an athlete’s own well-being, it is better to face the fact of sickness or injury and withdraw from competition. And for the sport’s well-being, it is better to avoid a system open to abuse and exploitation.” The legality of the drugs is rather clear-cut. Doping is a question of ethics. How far are we willing to push the limits before we cross the blurred line between what is ethical and what is corrupt?

Lucy Siegel is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

related stories