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Monday, October 10, 2016

50 Shades of Sharapova: How the Media Covered and Didn't Cover Meldonium

by Aleks V

In my five years of sports journalism, I've never once mentioned doping. Professional soccer, thankfully, has rarely had problems with Performance Enhancing Drugs in recent years. Either that, or few such problems have been unearthed. The last high-profile case was Diego Maradona back in 1994.

After a year of monitoring meldonium, also known as mildronate, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) added it to its list of banned substances on Jan 1, 2016.

Since meldonium was banned, a soccer connection has only come up once - when FC Rostov's entire starting eleven were subject to a surprise test by FIFA after a 3-1 win over Dynamo Moscow in May. All of the players tested negative.

Other sports, namely tennis, have been in the spotlight for athletes testing positive for the substance.

Tennis player Maria Sharapova, who initially received a two-year suspension for a positive test, recently had her ban reduced to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

"I think the one thing that I'd love to evidence on the performance-enhancing effect that it has," she said.

Claims that meldonium qualifies as a Performance Enhancing Drug, or PED, originate from a study funded by the Partnership for Clean Competition Research Collaborative and the Federal Ministry of the Interior of the Federal Republic of Germany. The study "does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Research Collaborative". The widespread use of meldonium among athletes, including those who don't engage in high-risk sports, as well as its presence on the black market, apparently leads to the suspicion and conclusion that it is used as a PED. However, no data is provided to support the enhancement claim. According to a notice issued by WADA, "Limited data exists to date on the urinary excretion of meldonium. Several studies are currently being conducted involving WADA-accredited laboratories, and WADA will share these results with its stakeholders when available."

In that same notice, WADA lies about the manufacturer's claims of enhancement. In an open letter to WADA, Grindeks, the manufacturer of meldonium, stated, "We're convinced that Meldonium is not a preparation enhancing an athlete's sports achievements...The therapeutic use of Meldonium does not contradict the spirit of sport and, especially, health."

Meldonium "was help patients with cardiovascular diseases survive difficult times when, for whatever reason, the supply of blood to their heart muscle worsens", said Professor Ivars Kalvins, its inventor.

Kalvins explains why it isn't doping, describing the substance as having the opposite effect. "Athletes can train without being afraid that if they inadvertently overstep their limit, they will end up in hospital with a heart attack or die on the field," he said. Meldonium is available in Eastern European countries, including former Soviet republics.

Many other professionals dispute the claims that meldonium can be a PED. They include Don Catlin, founder of the first sports anti-doping lab in the United States and "considered the most prominent anti-doping drug tester in the world".

Dr. Michael Joyner, a physiologist and anesthesiologist at the Mayo Clinic who has published hundreds of studies focusing on how humans respond to exercise, says the effects of meldonium are unclear.

Ford Vox, physician and medical analyst for NPR station WABE in Atlanta, said that "outside of the hype you see about the drug online, there's not much scientific support for its use as an athletic enhancer."

Many well-known athletes, whose Therapeutic Use Exemptions became publicly available through hacker group 'Fancy Bears', take doses of otherwise banned substances for medical reasons. After multiple requests, Bethanie Mattek-Sands received therapeutic exemption in April for use of hydrocortisone, a steroid medication used for treating inflammation. Serena and Venus Williams were both given Therapeutic Use Exemptions to take a series of substances on WADA's banned list for various health problems. These substances include opioid painkillers (banned due to being labelled as narcotics) and corticosteroid anti-inflammatories.

WADA's decisions to include or exclude known PEDs are controversial. Multiple studies have shown that caffeine, a widely used stimulant, can enhance an athlete's performance. It is monitored, but not currently banned by WADA. It used to be, but was removed from the list in 2004.

Concerning Sharapova, much of the mainstream media were quick to jump on the one-sided bandwagon of blame.

The New York Post slams her for her "poor-little-scapegoat act". Vanity Fair claims the "drug scandal may be darker than you think". The Telegraph claims she "has no shame". USA Today and Forbes offer an altogether different perspective. Meanwhile, The New York Times attempts to stay neutral, while The Guardian mistakes neutrality with trying to please both sides. There's one thing the last publication does right, though, and that's mention that Sharapova could have applied for a Therapeutic Use Exemption. Then again, this assumes prior knowledge of meldonium's new status as a banned substance. Sharapova has claimed WADA did not make an effort to better inform Eastern European athletes using meldonium that the substance was added to the banned list. reminds us that two players, Greg Rusedski and Xavier Malisse, had their careers tainted despite being cleared to play. It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, and one instance to destroy it. Often, that instance comes in the form of a headline and a story with false charges. That story is printed and reprinted, shared among the masses who believe in the brand, or believe what they're told because it's been told so many times before. The more the same lie is repeated, the more it begins to look like the truth.

George Gerbner's cultivation theory states that the more people watch television, the more their views of reality begin to match what they see. I'd go one step further to say that all forms of mass media can form a vicious cycle, one in which the viewer's perspective on the world is shaped, then constantly reaffirmed by what they are shown and told. That theory goes hand-in-hand with Eli Pariser's "filter bubble" - a personalized, reflective echo chamber created by the web. Ironically, this echo chamber is not so "personalized" - millions are stuck in the exact same bubble.

When the right information is out of reach, few will spend time navigating the maze that is the worldwide web until they reach the facts. It's easier to be content with what you're given than to ask why it's given, and whether it makes sense.

Let's ask whether certain substances banned by WADA should be considered PEDs.

Let's bring back the question mark.

Let's see media coverage in not one, but in all 50 shades.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Yuriy Kalitvintsev Appointed Dynamo Moscow Manager

by Aleks V@aleksvee

Yuriy Kalitvintsev with the 2009 UEFA U-19 Euro trophy. Source:
Dynamo Moscow's Board of Directors announced Yuriy Kalitvintsev as the football club's new manager, taking over from interim Sergei Chikishev. The 48-year-old Volgograd native played as a midfielder for the club from 1992-1994, making a total of 107 appearances in all competitions and scoring 16 goals, including a hat-trick in a friendly against Italian side Brescia Calcio.

Yuriy Kalitvintsev won most of his silverware at Dynamo Kiev, including four Ukrainian championships, two Cups, and two CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Cups.

He was consistently named one of the top players in both the Russian and Ukrainian championships. He acquired Ukrainian citizenship and was capped 22 times for the Ukraine national team, scoring one goal in their 1-0 win against Croatia in Euro 1996 Qualifying.

His son, Vladislav Kalitvintsev, seems no less gifted. The youngest player to debut for Dynamo Kiev in the modern era, he's already tallied a Premier League title and two Ukrainian Cups.

Kalitvintsev's coaching career has had its ups and downs. After a short spell at Ukraine side Zakarpattia (now FC Hoverla Uzhhorod), he headed Ukraine's Under-19 national team on two occasions, leading them to victory in the 2009 UEFA European Under-19 Championship during his second spell.

He lost out to Myron Markevych and then Oleh Blokhin for the job at the senior team, although he did join the coaching staff of both managers, serving as caretaker after Markevych's resignation.

Volga Nizhny Novgorod gave Kalitvintsev a long-awaited chance to return to the role of head coach. However, his stay at the Russian Premier League was short-lived - appointed to the helm in January 2013, he resigned in March the following year. The club's financial problems took a toll on results - they were 14th in the Premier League with just 18 points after 22 games. Kalitvintsev's Volga were in 7th before the players stopped getting paid, however.

In his first press conference as manager of Dynamo Moscow, Kalitvintsev immediately set his sights higher than simply returning the storied club, relegated last season for the first time in their 93-year history, to the top tier of Russian football. He emphasized the need for the club to have a long-term development strategy, one that is conducive to its homegrown players. He expressed his desire to work closely with the head coach of the club's farm team.

Kalitvintsev's coaching approach will undoubtedly differ from that of his predecessors. "We will communicate with the players," he said. "The team will keep those players who are willing to work, not just earn money."

Kalitvintsev's coaching staff consists of Gennadiy Litovchenko and Yuri Kovtun from his Volga days, as well as ex-Dynamo Moscow goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Problem Is US Soccer, Not Jurgen Klinsmann

by Aleks V@aleksvee

It's another year, and another horde of fans and journalists pointing fingers at United States men's national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, or so I've heard upon reading a piece by a Mr. Leander Schaerlaeckens on Yahoo! Sports.

Mr. Schaerlaeckens makes a good point to praise LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena, who could once again take over the USMNT at some point in the future, but other than that, his article is but one of many unfair criticisms aimed at current NT coach Klinsmann, grounded in a few statistics, plenty of adjectives, and not much else.

When it comes to the quality of play shown by the USMNT, the problem isn't Jurgen Klinsmann - it's US soccer in general.

While the rest of the soccer world has noticeably grown and evolved in the last decade, Major League Soccer has not only stayed behind - it has gone backwards. "There's no doubt that our 20th season was the best season in our 20 years," Mr. Garber proudly told Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated.

Whatever he was watching last year, it certainly wasn't MLS.

I recall tuning in to the 2015 MLS Cup Final between Columbus Crew and the Portland Timbers - supposedly a contest between the league's best two teams. Portland's Diego Valeri scored the fastest goal in the history of the MLS Cup. Rodney Wallace added to the Timbers' lead, and Crew got one back through Kei Kamara. Those were the first 18 minutes of the game, and the only worth watching. The rest looked like an amateur soccer game, a total embarrassment for the league and US soccer in general.

Things weren't always so bad. When I first began watching MLS seven or eight years ago, the picture was different. It was exciting and fast-paced. The New York Red Bulls were especially strong, with players like Thierry Henry, Juan Pablo Angel, Tim Ream, Rafael Marquez, and Dane Richards. When Angel and other good players left the Red Bulls, it was the start of a downward spiral. Years later, when the Red Bulls finally won the first silverware in their history, they sacked then coach Mike Petke and hired Jesse Marsch, whose only coaching stint was a 1 year, 3 month 12-16-6 spell with the Montreal Impact.

Jurgen Klinsmann.  
Such decisions can only be explained by some sort of financial interests, rather than results.

The degradation of MLS can be attributed to its 'business first' approach, which turns a blind eye on quality. Like the music industry, MLS enjoys being average - great for their bottom line, but not for the goal line. Good for the short-term, but not the long-term. It's a system that feeds the wallets of the few, but doesn't work for the players or the fans.

The generational shift has also contributed to the stagnation in the development of US soccer. The new generation of players isn't growing, and there's no one to replace the few talents of the last. Many of the NT's youngest players are neither MLS youth products nor play in MLS. It's no wonder that MLS is still known as 'the retirement league' for successful European players like Steven Gerrard who are long past their prime.

US soccer is behind Europe in another big way - the absence of promotion and relegation. Without a pyramidal system in which the worst two clubs automatically leave the league at the end of the season, there's little incentive for players besides just getting through another year.

If not for the USMNT players who play abroad (captain Michael Bradley previously played for AS Roma and Borussia Monchengladbach, six out of seven defenders called up for recent qualifiers play abroad, a handful of NT forwards play in the Bundesliga, and the two main goalkeepers are in the English Premier League), the situation would be much more grim.

After the USMNT's 2-1 loss to Jamaica in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers, I wrote of the superiority of players with experience at some of the best leagues abroad to MLS players, arguing that players who play every four days will be in better shape than those who play once a week. I also mentioned that "the U.S. can only hope to rely on homegrown talent with the improvement of its academy programs and league system."

Clubs in Europe have strong academies. MLS clubs have academies, too - the difference is in quality.
How many homegrown USMNT players have MLS academies produced, and just how good are they?

Mr. Schaerlaeckens points out the difference in the national team's performance in friendlies and official games, but fails to provide analysis. Why does the USMNT perform better in friendlies? The players have something to prove - unofficial games are the battleground for spots in the starting line-up. Why does the team sometimes under-perform in official games? The unwillingness of some of its key players to put country over club. Official games are much more physical - why give your all and risk getting injured? For some players, getting benched for their club is a much bigger deal than sitting out for a NT game. At the end of the day, the ball is round, and that's a factor as well.

Given the same players, would someone else do as good - or even better - a job as Jurgen Klinsmann? I doubt it.

Klinsmann was an excellent player and is a good coach. He needs the support of the US Soccer Federation, his players, and the fans - that'll give the national team a real chance of not only making the World Cup finals, but doing well in the tournament itself.

Note: As this article was being written, the USMNT won 4-0 in their 2018 World Cup Qualifier vs Guatemala. They've won all 10 of their home World Cup Qualifiers under Klinsmann.

Monday, February 29, 2016

10 Reasons to Watch the Russian Premier League in 2016

by Aleks V@aleksvee

The second half of the 2015-16 Russian Premier League season kicks off on Saturday, March 5, with Krylya Sovetov hosting FC Rostov at 14:15 Moscow Time (6:15 a.m. ET). The winter transfer window has produced some exciting additions, giving us plenty to look forward to.

10. The Kuban step

Felipe Santana. Photo: FC Kuban
A struggling Kuban Krasnodar made the best out of the winter transfer window with seven free signings, including Schalke centre back Felipe Santana. The club will still need to pay its players, however. Kuban's financial woes led to a growing debt, with some players not being payed in months. The club's General Director Valery Statsenko said that the debts are currently being paid, and will soon disappear entirely. Meanwhile, manager Sergey Tashuev is tasked with crafting a new team mid-season. It'll be quite challenging, but when you're bottom of the table, there's not much else to do. Will Kuban find a money wise approach to rescue them from the impending doom of relegation?

9. The Bright cousin

Amkar Perm's new signings. Bright Dike is number 10. Photo: FC Amkar Perm
Chinedu Bright Dike, cousin of ex-Spartak forward Emmanuel Emenike, joined mid-table club Amkar Perm this winter as a free agent. The American-born Nigerian forward, who's also the older brother of FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup runner-up Courtney Dike, previously played in the U.S., where he scored 20 goals in 50 games for MLS club Portland Timbers, and had a great run at USL side Orange County Blues FC (6 goals and 2 assists in 10 appearances). It's not every day a former MLS player makes the move to Russia - Yura Movsisyan did so in 2011 - so there will be some added interest to his performance from abroad.

8. Ezekiel sees the Lokomotiv wheel

Photo: FC Lokomotiv on Twitter
The RPL's most expensive signing this winter was Ezekiel Henty, who joined Lokomotiv Moscow from Slovenian club NK Olimpija for 5 million euros. The 22-year-old winger's performance this season in the Prva Liga certainly justifies the sum - eight goals and eight assists in 21 appearances. Plus, he doubles as a centre-forward.

7. Luke brings back the Force

Luke Wilkshire. Photo: FC Terek Grozny
Amidst all the hustle and bustle of big name signings, Australian right-back Luke Wilkshire quietly made his way back to Russia. The defender joined Terek Grozny in November as a free agent, being unattached since leaving Dutch side Feyenoord in August, but was only confirmed in the roster this winter. Last season found Luke struggling with thigh injuries, yet eking out four assists in 27 appearances, including one in Europa League qualifying. At his best, he's a great asset to the back line. He'll fit right in with Terek's powerful defense - the team lost only two games this season and conceded the second lowest number of goals. A winning equation has two parts, and Luke's ability to provide opportunities in the attack can help the 7th placed team move into Europa League territory. We can all be certain the Force is still strong with this one.

6. The young and the restless

21-year-old Tashaev had a goal and an assist in Dynamo's winter friendlies.
As the second youngest team in the Russian Premier League (average age: 25.9), Dynamo Moscow are entering a new era. It may be one of great difficulty, unexpected surprises, or both. After multiple seasons of transfer shenanigans, UEFA put their foot down, pushing the Moscow club to make adjustments with regards to Financial Fair Play. Dynamo ended up selling their most expensive players - mostly foreigners - and introducing salary caps. With these limits in place, they've had to rely on their U21s, some of who, like Tashaev, Terekhov, Katrich, and Obolskiy, have shown they can play well at the highest level. Dynamo's winter transfer window was marked by the departure of the overrated (Kokorin), the arrival of the underrated (Sebastian Holmen), and a blast from the past in the form of fullback Andrey Eshchenko, on loan until the end of the season a decade after his first loan spell at Dynamo. Like Kuban's Tashuev, Dynamo coach Andrey Kobelev is tasked with rebuilding a team. The only manager to lead Dynamo to a top 3 finish in the 21st century, Kobelev won't follow where the path may lead - he'll leave yet another trail.

5. FC Krasnodar's new stadium

Digital rendering of FC Krasnodar's new stadium.
Andres Villas-Boas is known for his constant complaints regarding the quality of pitches with artificial turf. It won't be long before he shows up to nail his 95 theses on the door of the Russian Football Union. Krasnodar's new stadium, however, won't make the list. The Bulls' new home, which will seat 33,000, is set to host its first game this summer. The turf is au naturale. If it opens in time to see AVB off, one thing's for sure - there's no chance of him complaining about this one.

4. AVB's farewell

Andres Villas-Boas. Photo: Instagram
Andres Villas-Boas has chosen to leave the reigning RPL champions at the end of the season. Under the Portuguese manager, Zenit won the 2014-15 Russian Premier League title and 2015 Super Cup. They are currently the last Russian team standing in Europe. They're also in the semi-finals of the domestic cup tournament. With the title still at stake, there are three opportunities for silverware. If Villas-Boas adds to his trophy collection before leaving Russia, he'll certainly fulfill his mission of "doing for Zenit what Peter the Great did for St. Petersburg".

3. Roman Shirokov

Roman Shirokov. Photo:
This is a no-brainer - the Russia national team captain's return to the club where he began his career was one of the biggest transfers this winter. The fact that he joined from Spartak Moscow only adds some extra spice to the derby. As a youth player, Shirokov never made CSKA's senior team. He has something to prove, and that means we'll likely see the return of the original, critically acclaimed midfielder who shone for Zenit five years ago. Leonid Slutsky, who is doing double duty at CSKA and Russia's NT, will be able to keep a better eye on him and help bring back the Shirokov we all love and look forward to seeing.

2. Alenichev's Spartak

"The title is that way." Photo:
Dmitri Alenichev said it loud and clear: He wants to win the title. Spartak are currently fourth, four points behind second placed Rostov and seven behind leaders CSKA. Despite the departure of a handful of key players like Movsisyan and Ozbiliz, Spartak only made one signing in the winter transfer window, acquiring the talented Paraguayan winger Lorenzo Melgarejo from Kuban Krasnodar. However, that signing was a good one - together with Quincy Promes, Spartak now have the season's top two goal scorers at their disposal. For a team with title ambitions, that may come in handy.

1. FC Rostov: A Cinderella Story

Kurban Berdyev: the man with a plan. Photo: FC Rostov
Rostov are the RPL's Leicester City. If Miodrag Bozovic was the Nigel Pearson to the RPL's Leicester, then Kurban Berdyev is their Claudio Ranieri, taking over and finishing what the other began. It's hard to imagine that a team that finished last season in the relegation play-offs is currently 2nd (!) behind CSKA, and has a realistic shot at their first Premier League title. Under Berdyev, Rostov have conceded the least number of goals of any RPL club this season. With 12 more games and 36 possible points left in the season, they'll do their best to keep the dream alive.

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