Keep Doping Consequences Heavy
Tennis’ darling played dumb and received a reprieve.
Maria Sharapova’s suspension for meldonium use was reduced from two years to 15 months by the Court of Arbitration of Sport on Oct. 4 because the organization believes Sharapova didn’t intend to cheat. She claims she wasn’t aware that the drug she was taking had become banned.
In trimming the tennis star’s suspension, CAS sent the message that, if a player takes a drug with the intent of enhancing performance but claims they weren’t aware that it was banned, they can weasel their way out of her punishment. Further, CAS disrespected the International Tennis Federation by reversing its decision on Sharapova’s case. This opens the door for players to claim ignorance about doping violations and get away with them, threatening the clean reputation of tennis.
The public first learned of the scandal in March when Sharapova called a press conference to reveal that she was caught using a drug she knew as “mildronate.” She tested positive for the drug during the Australian Open, just two weeks after its ban had gone into effect. Players were notified of the addition of the substance to the banned list via email, but Sharapova claims she did not read the message. She said she had been taking the drug for 10 years prior for prediabetes, magnesium deficiency and irregular EKGs, but never listed it on a used substance form.
Tennis analysts and fans alike ran to Sharapova’s defense, offering a list of reasons why she was innocent. The drug was prescribed by her family doctor for a medical problem. She shouldn’t be expected to comb through long lists of banned substances with cryptic pharmaceutical names. She didn’t mean to cheat.
Mildronate has a pseudonym, meldonium, which, at the time of her press conference, was not yet well known to the public. Meldonium has since become synonymous with cheating by Russian athletes. In the summer leading up to the Rio Olympics, over 100 Russian athletes were suspended from the games for meldonium use. It began to increasingly look like Sharapova was one of those athletes as more and more details emerged about her case.
Evidence from the ITF report shows that Sharapova knew meldonium would benefit her tennis. In a string of emails, Sharapova received instruction from her former doctor in Russia, Dr. Anatoly Skalny, who said to increase her melodium dosage during “games of special importance” to three to four pills one hour before her matches. She used meldonium six times in seven days at Wimbledon in 2015, when she made it to the semifinals before falling to Serena Williams.
Sharapova’s medical excuses also began to appear flimsier as the case progressed. While there is some evidence that meldonium helps with diabetes, it is not known to regulate heartbeat or treat a magnesium deficiency. It does, however, improve blood flow to muscle tissue in a way that improves athletes’ exercise capacity.
In addition to her past emails and lack of medical justification, the infeasibility of Sharapova’s ignorance argument also makes her seem guilty. Sharapova, the highest-paid female athlete from 2004–2015, is constantly surrounded by an entourage dedicated to ensuring her tennis success — trainers, a personal traveling coach, hitting partners, an agent. At least one member of her staff was bound to have read the email that included the updated substance list and informed her of the issue.
Despite these many discrepancies in her story, the CAS bought into the image of Sharapova as honest. Her assertion that she did not know that meldonium had become banned and her willingness to do a preemptive press conference and admit fault were enough for the CAS to trim her suspension.
Sharapova will return to tennis in April virtually untouched by her suspension. The 15-month break barely puts a dent in her financial empire, which includes countless endorsements from the likes of Nike and Porsche and $37 million in career prize money. Although she has to start from scratch when it comes to her ranking, she will have no problem gaining a wild card into tournaments. Tennis can’t wait to have its hard-hitting, fist-pumping dynamo back.
Sharapova’s trademark swinging blonde ponytail and scream-level grunt will announce her reappearance in the tennis world — one that now seems a little less clean. Let’s just hope her second chance doesn’t send the signal that players can dope without consequence.