Being occupied with other things, it was only as I retired to bed last night and turned on the radio that I first heard the news that Maria Sharapova had tested positive for the banned substance meldonium at the Australian Open in January.
At a Los Angeles press conference which she had called herself [thereby causing a wave of media speculation that she was about to announce her impending retirement from the sport because of the lengthy and cumulative list of injuries that have part-blighted her career], the Russian tennis player – 29 next month and currently Number 6 in the women’s world rankings – sounded contrite and sincere as she explained that her family doctor had been prescribing her mildronate (another name for meldonium) for the past ten years for health issues including a magnesium deficiency and a family disposition towards diabetes.
Sharapova admitted that she had received a notification from the International Tennis Federation on 22nd December that meldonium was to appear on the Wada [World Anti-Doping Agency] list as a banned substance from 1st January, apparently because there was growing evidence that athletes were using it to enhance their performance. However, she had not ‘followed’ the included internet link, which would have made clear that meldonium and mildronate were effectively the same substance.
Her version continued:
“I failed the test and I take full responsibility for it. I had a huge mistake …”
The ITF [International Tennis Federation] confirmed that Sharapova had received notice that she had failed the test on 2nd March and would be provisionally suspended from 12th March. She has stated that she hopes to be able to return to the women’s tour as soon as possible although – and I am not 100% clear on this point – the punishment for a first offence can be a ban on competing for up to two years. If that was applied to Sharapova it would probably end her career.
Personally, and I’m totally behind the Rust’s tough stance of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport, this development leaves me with mixed feelings.
Firstly, I’m a Sharapova fan – she is one of the highest profile women’s tour professionals and one of world sport’s top stars of either gender. Despite her attractive looks (and the earnings potential that goes with them, of which she has taken healthy advantage – and why not?), she is widely acknowledged as being one of the world’s most dedicated and well-prepared female athletes.
On the other hand, and I am speculating here from a position where I know little more than any fellow Rust reader may have gleaned from media coverage of this shocking development, there is a slight whiff of Sharapova – and her management team – faced with the bare fact of the failed test, having adopted the calculated strategy that ‘coming clean with the news’ at the earliest opportunity will not only aid her cause generally but allow her, to some degree or another, to ‘take control of the situation’. Here I’m referring to the resumption of her tennis career, protecting her current and potential future very-lucrative sponsorship deals and, ultimately, her lasting legacy in the sport she loves and to which she has devoted her life from such an early age. She’s one of the all-time legends of tennis – and not just of the women’s tour.
Of course, when legends fall from grace they tend to fall faster and further than the rest of their peers and indeed those of us who are fans. That is what makes Sharapova’s ‘mistake’ all the more shocking.
On the radio overnight I heard one pundit mention that the development was almost counter-intuitive because, above all else inside the sport, Sharapova is well-known for her meticulous preparation. She retains one of the biggest entourages – covering everything from diet and nutrition, conditioning, physio, massage, medical issues, her travelling and playing schedules to psychological positivity, never mind promotional, contractual and revenue-generating matters – in the women’s game. In that context, it was extraordinary that she, or somebody on her team, had not picked up the implications of the Wada move to place meldonium on its banned list from 1st January.
If Sharapova’s statement yesterday is to be taken at face value, the story is a simple one of a straightforward innocent mistake on her part (or possibly that of a member of her team) for which, like any good team leader, she personally is ‘fessing up’ because – either way – hers is the desk on which the buck stops.
I’d just make two concluding comments at this early stage in a development that I’m sure has a long way to run:
The world of sport is littered with infamous examples of athletes caught using performance-enhancing drugs – and also with examples of those findings (and subsequent punishments, great or eye-openingly slight) going challenged, overturned on appeal, and/or ‘explained away’ with a series of excuses whose creativity and inventiveness would put that of Leonardo, Picasso and James Joyce, never mind Paul Merton or David Bowie to shame. Just as – in other cases – there have been genuine examples of athletes of unimpeachable integrity and honesty who have fallen foul of the authorities completely by accident. The trouble is, of course, that there is no nailed-down ‘lie detector test’ that can be applied to all those who fail Wada tests and thereby conclusively prove, one way or the other, what has been going on.
Secondly – and arising from that point – we must not lose sight of the fundamental truth that world class sports competition operates on a business plateau of staggering revenue-generation and commercial power.
We should not under-estimate the degree to which the ITF, and specifically the women’s tour side of things, relies upon the image and wholesome values that it presents to the world, which is inextricably linked to (and promoted by) the success and profile of its top stars, of which Sharapova is one of the leading examples. All I’m saying is that Rust readers should bear this in mind as they await further developments. It is as much in the interest of the world tennis authorities as Sharapova’s that this unfortunate business should be put to bed as soon as possible.
Lastly, here is a link to an article by Professor J. Savulescu (and others) which appeared in the British Journal Of Sports Medicine as long ago as 2004, ironically the year that Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon with what was described, as the piece mentions, as a ‘virtuoso performance’, that may be of relevance and/or interest – WHY WE SHOULD ALLOW PERFORMANCE-ENHANCING DRUGS IN SPORT