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It’s been a tough week for Maria Sharapova, but this time the action has been taking place off the court. After failing a drug test for the Australian Open, it has been revealed that the 28-year-old Russian tennis ace has been taking a form of meldonium, a banned substance in the sport, for over a decade.
Meldonium can also be known as mildronate, and is a drug which reduces fatigue in athletes. It increases the oxygen flow to the muscles and, therefore, to some it may be the very definition of ‘performance enhancing’. Sharapova claims that the drug was only banned by official bodies in January of this year, and that she was taking the latter form of it. In a press conference a few days ago, she stated that the drug was issued to her by her doctor. Then she corrects herself; her family doctor. Was that a simple slip of the tongue or an attempt to normalise the situation, removing the allocation of the drug from the hands of a professional entity and into the comforting, understandable realm of the family GP?
The next point she emphasises is that she was ‘legally taking the medicine for the last ten years‘. She claims that she was given the medication due to a range of ongoing ailments which stemmed back to 2006, citing concerns over a family history of diabetes. Then, however, came the apology.
“I made a huge mistake, and I let my fans down. I’ve let this sport down, that I’ve been playing since the age of four, that I love so deeply. I know that with this I face consequences, and I don’t wanna end my career this way and I really hope that I will be given another chance to play this game.”
Then the rebuttals began. Former World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound (who was head of the organization from 1999 to 2007) stated that the failure of the drugs test was “reckless beyond description“, telling BBC News that it was almost impossible for Sharapova not to know what she was doing. “Running a $30m business depends on you staying eligible to play tennis,” added Pound, “Anytime there is a change to the list, notice is given on 30 September prior to the change. All the tennis players were given notification of it and she has a medical team somewhere. It was a big mistake.”
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) has officially declared that Maria Sharapova is to be provisionally suspended from 12 March. This means that the highest ranking female athlete in the world for over a decade (according to Forbes Magazine) is facing a very uncertain future. Following the press release and subsequent announcement, the sponsors began to disappear. Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer, along with Nike and Porsche have all either severed or ‘suspended’ ties with the disgraced tennis star, who earned almost $30 million last year, most of which came from corporate sponsorship and endorsements.
“We’re now entering a zero tolerance era for sponsors,” Rupert Pratt, co-founder of sports sponsorship agency Generate told Reuters. “It is now seen as not acceptable to ‘stand by your man’ because of the amount of scrutiny corporates are now under.”
The Irish sports journalist Paul Kimmage has gone on record stating that there are “holes all over Maria Sharapova’s story” in a recent interview:
“She lives in Manhattan Beach. This medicine [Meldonium] is not licenced for use in the US. Why has she been using this drug for 10 years, when the normal course of treatment for the drug is four-six weeks? Has she declared this use on any of her anti-doping forms? That will bear out what she has been saying. Is she anywhere on record in the past talking about this condition?
That’s the problem. She’s been given great credit for “taking control of this” and going on record and being up front on this, telling the world about it, but unfortunately there are holes all over her story. It’s a bit laughable to say the least.”
The statements, which have initiated a great deal of online debate, were concluded with Kimmage’s fears for tennis in general:
“I don’t believe anybody with half a brain would believe that there wasn’t any doping in tennis, I just thought we’d never hear about it. That’s the way this ship has been run for the past three or four decades. Everything is kept in-house.”
The details of the drug’s availability in the US and unsuitability for prolonged use were echoed in the New York Times by a medical expert:
Dr. Steven Nissen, chairman of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, said that the drug was not available in the United States but that it seemed to be used elsewhere to treat chest pains from severe heart disease. “There is no way it would be clinically indicated in a healthy young athlete,” he said.
Sharapova now faces a four year ban, with a subsequently tainted career, but British sprinter Jeanette Kwakye spoke with the BBC and aired her fears that Sharapova’s relationshipo with the media may allow her to get off lightly.
“What we have in Maria Sharapova is a media darling,” said Kwakye. “She knows how to work the world of media, she knows how to spin and put things in her favour by breaking her own news. For somebody like her, it may be a lenient slap on the wrist.”
So, while the jury is out on Maria Sharapova, tennis fans are left in an unfortunate predicament. In many of these situations, a single example of doping is merely the beginning of a nasty unravelling of previously hidden truths. It also marks a continuation of scandal surrounding Russian Athletes, and with the Olympic Games merely months away, it raises a lot of questions.
The primary one for the time being, however, is that of Maria Sharopova’s guilt in this situation? Was she simply being naive, or is this a case of simply being sorry because she got caught?