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Saturday Serve: Is the war on drugs fighting the wrong people?

In law there is an age-old saying: "It is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer", but in the zealous war on drugs in sport it seems this mantra is not only being overlooked, but wilfully ignored.

The world is gnashing its teeth and condemning Maria Sharapova following her positive test for meldonium, with other tennis players quick to insist on her being banned.

But have we lost sight on what this war on drugs is actually all about - catching athletes who takes drugs for the purpose of cheating?

There seems to be almost 50 shades of grey surrounding the Sharapova case - a drug she says she has taken for health reasons during the last decade and which only became a banned substance on New Year's Day.

So either Sharapova has knowingly used a performance-enhancing drug for 10 years and the drug agencies have only just caught up or she is someone who needs to take drugs for health reasons.

If it is the former, then throw the book at her, but if it is the latter then does she really deserve to be punished?


Sharapova is staring down the barrel of a four-year ban potentially because she is guilty of carelessness. If that's the case, is what she has done really worth such a lengthy exile?

She said she takes the drug due to long existing heart problems and diabetes.

The five-time major winner could have applied for an exemption to continue using meldonium on medical grounds and, if granted, it would have been business as usual.

That is still an option open to the 28-year-old to try and minimise any suspension.

It raises the question of whether the World Anti-Doping Agency and co have lost sight of their goals? Don't they exist to eradicate drug cheats?

While they might be enforcing the letter of the law, are they remaining true to the spirit of their role?

There seems to be an ever-growing list of hard-luck cases leading to bans when surely a more compassionate approach was called for.

Two Collingwood players, Lachlan Keeffe and Josh Thomas, are serving two-year bans from playing in the AFL because they allegedly took a recreational drug, cocaine, that just happened to be cut with a performance enhancing drug.

There was no intent to cheat, they simply took a drug that many young men and women have indulged in for many years.

Sure it is illegal, but to suggest the Collingwood duo took it to enhance their performance is ludicrous.

The crime they are guilty of is being foolish. And yet their careers as footballers are potentially over under the guise of being drug cheats.

Meanwhile, 34 past and present Essendon players got a 12-month ban as the AFL club set up a shooting gallery under the supervision of the disgraced Stephen Dank.

Then there is the story of Australian swimmer Ryan Napoleon, who almost missed out on the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi simply because his chemist made a mistake.

Napoleon tested positive for formoterol, which is commonly use to treat asthma - a condition the then 20-year-old had suffered his whole life.

He even had medical dispensation to take medication to treat his asthma.

Unfortunately, that dispensation only applied to a specific drug and not the one his chemist incorrectly packaged up for Napoleon.

If he had any way of knowing the drug in his inhaler was formoterol and not what he was prescribed, he could have obtained a medical clearance for formoterol as well.

But that didn't stop FINA, swimming's world governing body, from giving him a three-month ban to force him to miss Delhi.

This time carelessness and foolishness played no part in the positive test - Napoleon was found guilty for someone else's mistake. Where is the intent to cheat?

Luckily, the Court of Arbitration of Sport came up with a slightly less ludicrous finding and backdated his three-month ban to allow him to compete at the Commonwealth Games.

But he still wasn't allowed to train with his squad, which potentially cost him a gold medal at Delhi - he finished second in the men's 400-metre freestyle.

Canberra cycling star Michael Rogers also found himself embroiled in a drug saga when he tested positive for clenbuterol after winning the Japan Cup.

He was provisionally banned, which was overturned six months after the original test because he was found to have eaten contaminated Chinese meat.

But Rogers was still stripped of his victory in the Japan Cup, simply because he ordered the steak instead of the salad. Punished for the meal he decided to eat.

In the meantime, Russian race-walking coach Viktor Chegin had more than 20 of his athletes receive doping bans during a six-year period before he was eventually banned himself.

He was the mastermind of a systemic doping regime that Olympic silver medallist Jared Tallent had been crying foul of for years.

Sure, showing leniency to people who aren't intentionally cheating will lead to actual drug cheats claiming they were simply careless, foolish, unlucky or ordered the wrong meal.

But it is WADA's job to sort the chaff from the wheat and work out who is actually trying to cheat because there is a vast difference between a drug cheat and someone who takes a banned drug.

How many innocents who clearly are the latter are we happy to let suffer just to catch the former?

It will be interesting to see on which side Sharapova is remembered to be on.