The charming smile and the carefully worded one-liners were still in place. Even the get-up was impeccable as always – perfectly straightened hair, classy black dress and not a hint of a worry line on her face. As Maria Sharapova climbed up on the dais to address the horde of eager journalists, it was hard not to imagine this was a culmination to every press conference that Sharapova has held in her long and celebrated career.
ittle did we know the unholy secret that the Russian was bringing into the room. But perhaps we should’ve been prepared for what was coming, after Sharapova tried to douse expectations by opening with her now-famous line, “If I was ever going to announce my retirement, it probably would not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet.”
It’s curious that Sharapova chose the word ‘ugly’ to describe the carpet. Because the 10-minute period that followed, wherein she revealed that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open, was as ugly as anything that she’s ever been associated with.
She still said all the right things, of course. “I did fail the test and take full responsibility for it.” “I made a huge mistake.” “I have let my fans down and let the sport down that I have been playing since the age of four, that I love so deeply.” “I know that with this I face consequences and I don’t want to end my career this way.” “I really hope to be given another chance to play this game.”
“Hope to be given another chance.” When does an athlete lose the right to be given another chance, the opportunity to redeem herself? That is possibly the most crucial question in this whole saga, and also the toughest one to answer.
By all accounts, what Sharapova did was wrong. The substance that she tested positive for, meldonium, has been on WADA’s list of banned substances since 1st January 2016, which means that the Russian competed in one of the four biggest tournaments of the year armed with an unfair advantage over the rest of the field.
What’s more damning, however, is that the intimation of meldonium being added to the prohibited list was sent to Sharapova as early as last December. In a moment of glorious ditziness she chose to ignore that intimation, which is probably going to condemn her to a lifetime of ‘dumb blonde’ jokes. Just how careless do you have to be to make a slip-up like that?
It may have been an ‘honest mistake’, as Maria Navratilova put it, but it was a mistake all the same. A huge one. There is no doubt that the transgression deserves some kind of punishment; if there isn’t, the whole existence of WADA’s anti-doping protocal will be reduced to a joke.
The Russian’s team of advisors and trainers, in particular, need to take a long hard look at themselves for letting this happen, and the only way they’ll do that is if Sharapova fires one or more of them. And the only way she’ll fire any of them is if she’s given a significant penalty.
It’s one thing for an athlete to neglect scrutinizing the legalities of her training diet, but it’s quite another for the people recommending that diet to ignore something like the WADA prohibited list. What’s the point of being the most committed professional in the tennis world if you can’t even put together a professional team of trainers? Heads must certainly roll in the Sharapova camp after this incident.
So I guess we can all agree that Sharapova did violate the doping protocol, and does deserve a significant penalty for it. But what constitutes a ‘significant penalty’? That would depend on the nature of the crime that Sharapova is charged with.
Some, like three-time Slam champion Jennifer Capriati, are convinced that Sharapova has been cheating the system for years. Others, like Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche, have already suspended relations with the world’s richest female athlete. Still others, taking to the beautiful medium of Twitter, have painstakingly detailed the various ways in which meldonium can aid a top-level athlete.
Surely the amazing powers of this wonder-drug are proof that Sharapova is a liar and a cheat?
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s back up here a little, shall we? Sharapova claims that she has been using meldonium since 2006 in the form of a medicine called mildronate, on the advice of her family doctor. And meldonium, as we all probably know by now, is used to treat heart conditions by increasing blood flow, while also reportedly enhancing the exercise capacity of an athlete.
Sharapova says she took mildronate because she has an irregular heartbeat, and also because she has a history of diabetes in her family. Those are perfectly reasonable explanations from where I’m seeing, even if the ‘family doctor’ bit does seem just a tiny bit suspicious.
But clearly, not everyone thinks the way I do. Sharapova has been viciously criticized for trotting out these reasons, with no shortage of colourful language being used to describe her ‘excuse’. Twitter users have mocked her and showered her with some choice sarcasm, and even someone of the stature of Capriati has publicly decided that Sharapova is lying through her teeth.
But why should any of us question her motives for using meldonium before 2016 at all? The substance was NOT banned before 1st January this year; it was wholly and unmistakably legal for any athlete to consume meldonium up to 31st December 2015. The reasons for using it before this year are immaterial; whether Sharapova took it as medication or as an afternoon snack, she was perfectly within her rights to consume as much of it as she wanted.
In fact, Sharapova was not the only athlete who was entitled to use meldonium up to 31st December 2015. The entire tennis field was free to do so without giving any reason for it because, before 2016, MELDONIUM. WAS. NOT. ILLEGAL. For all we know, a significant portion of tennis players were eating meldonium for fun.
So where does the ‘unfair advantage for 10 years’ argument come from?
No one is denying that at this year’s Australian Open, Sharapova did have an unfair advantage over all the other players. By all means, strip her of the points she earned at the tournament, and impose the relevant additional sanctions that come with failing a drug test. But calling her a cheat who manipulated the system for 10 years? That’s a stretch even by the exaggerated standards of the social media age.
Sharapova was 100% clean before 2016, no matter what our opinion of her motive for using meldonium may be. It’s not like she was being aided by a mysterious, undetectable drug that no one knew about. Meldonium was actually on WADA’s watch list for an entire year before it was added to the prohibited list, which suggests that its performance-enhancing effects were not substantial enough to warrant an immediate ban.
Sharapova never failed a dope test before this because she had never ‘doped’ before this – consumption of a substance can be called doping only if the substance is banned by law. She may have been careless, negligent and downright stupid in failing to click on the link that contained WADA’s new list of banned substances, but she is no serial PED offender.
The verdict on this matter is far from decided, and the punishment handed out to the Russian could range anywhere from a couple of months to four years. But the public conviction and judgmental denigration of a star athlete on social media and elsewhere – a phenomenon that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years – is something that we can all do without.
If the investigating team finds evidence that Sharapova wasn’t actually using meldonium since 2006, that would all but eliminate the mitigating circumstances surrounding her case. Alternatively, if the jury has reason to believe that she knew of the WADA’s new rule and deliberately tried to hoodwink the officials, then she would be in really hot water too. In either case, I would be the first person to recommend the strictest of penalties for her.
But until that time we should all ‘hold our horses’, as Navratilova says, before denouncing Sharapova as a disgrace to the sporting world.
The Russian remains a credit to the sport of tennis until proven otherwise. One unfortunate and inexcusable mistake does not, and should not, reduce 15 years’ worth of accomplishments to dust.