Cool or Drool: Sharapova’s Failed Drug Test

Dan Bisno, Columnist

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Every professional sport has an age at which players can no longer compete with their younger counterparts. In football, we see a noticeable decline for running backs in their late 20s and quarterbacks in their mid 30s. In baseball, pitchers tend to last longer than shortstops, and centers in basketball generally last longer than guards.

Tennis is no exception to this rule. There are hundreds of male and female players, yet only a handful are selected to compete in the few prestigious tournaments held every year. More often than not, singles players move to doubles when their athleticsm begins to decline, as the cardio demand is less and the signs of their inevitable retirement can be disguised. Therefore, when 28 year-old Russian superstar Maria Sharapova held a surprise press conference at a hotel in Los Angeles on March 7, everyone expected that her recent string of injuries had finally culminated in her inevitable retirement.

But nobody expected what came next. Sharapova announced that she had tested positive for meldonium, a substance banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency on Jan. 1. The apologetic star maintained her characteristic professionalism and charm, but behind that demeanor was undeniable fear. The maximum penalty for intentionally consuming a performance-enhancing substance is a four-year suspension, and a two-year suspension for unintentionally consuming one. Sharapova, who has been taking meldonium for many years, claimed to have been unaware that it was recently placed on the banned list.

Sharapova’s career would suffer were only banned for a year or two. Veteran players like Sharapova or Serena Williams have limited time left on the court. They have to pick their tournaments carefully, take on a moderate workload and make sure to give their bodies enough hydration and rest. If Sharapova were forced to take time off from the professional circuit, it would be tough for her come back to the big stage in her early 30s. In fact, no female tennis player of her stature has ever faced such a career dilemma. Despite the lack of precedent for this situation, Sharapova made her stance on retirement clear at her press conference by saying, “I don’t want to end my career this way, and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game.”

Did she really not know of meldonium’s banned status? “I made a huge mistake,” she said. “I let my fans down; I let the sport down.” How did the banned status of meldonium slip past the doctors and lawyers who are dedicated to ensuring her success? Multiple professional athletes have already tested positive for ingesting meldonium this year, including Swedish runner Abeba Aregawi and Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova. Independent studies suggest that 2.2 percent of all professional athletes have meldonium in their bloodstream.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding Sharapova’s consumption of meldonium is focused on her medical need for it as opposed to her use of it as an illegal performance-enhancing drug. She initially began taking meldonium because she was frequently sick, had a magnesium deficiency and was at risk for diabetes and other heart complications. But when it was placed on the banned list under the name “meldonium,” Sharapova’s team claims to not have realized that the drug she took to treat her circulation issues, mildronate, was also known as meldonium.

Sharapova called the press conference to address the violation. She made this information public before WADA or the Tennis Anti-Doping Programme announced her failed drug test. Unlike other cases of superstar athletes testing positive for PEDs and denying such allegations — such as Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez — Sharapova came forward immediately. Williams showed her respect for this by responding, “Most people are happy with the fact she was upfront with what she had done in terms of what she had neglected. With that being said, she’s taking responsibility, which she was ready to do.” It would be unlikely for Williams to harbor any animosity towards Sharapova, seeing as Williams is essentially Sharapova’s Achilles’ heel. Williams has defeated Sharapova 18 times in a row, PED or not.

Sharapova’s willing cooperation should be taken into account when the WADA decides whether or not to suspend her from the professional tennis circuit. Considering that the drug ban is less than three months old and meldonium is not an anabolic steroid, Sharapova is likely to be back on the court fairly soon. While this stint may not affect her playing career dramatically, she has taken major financial hits from withdrawn endorsement deals this past week.

Sharapova has been the highest paid female athlete in the world for 11 years in a row, raking in $29.7 million last year despite trailing Williams in career prize money by around $39 million. Sharapova has earned over $200 million in her career from endorsements and royalties. Her sponsors included Nike, American Express, Avon, Evian, Head, Porsche and TAG Heuer.

After announcing her positive drug test, she lost her endorsement with TAG Heuer, which claimed the decision was permanent. Her endorsements with Porsche and Nike were also suspended indefinitely. The latter, her prized sponsor, Nike, is a deal that was extended in 2010 for eight years and $70 million. Both companies have said they will not make any further decisions until the investigation is over. Similarily, the owner of Evian said, “Evian has been a partner of Maria Sharapova for many years, and until now, we have maintained a trustworthy professional relationship … We will follow closely the development of the investigation.” Sharapova may not be suspended from tennis at all, but she may have already lost three endorsement deals totaling millions of dollars of potential revenue.

Sharapova should be respected for her honesty, at least unless proven guilty of knowingly consuming a PED. She is being accused of being a cheater before the WADA has even had a chance to investigate. Sports fans will always be an athlete’s harshest critic. However, one would hope that international corporations like Nike would protect their athletes instead of jumping ship at the first sign of danger. Unless Sharapova is proven to have known about the banned list, we give Sharapova a ‘Cool’ for her willingness to comply, unlike the hundreds of male steroid users that fought the overwhelming evidence of their accusations until their last lying breath.

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