Photo Credit: Damian Dovarganes
Instead of announcing her drug infraction, perhaps Maria Sharapova should have announced her retirement – it was what everyone was expecting anyway. Instead of every tennis fan indicting her for her negligence in not knowing that the drug meldonium was as of January 1, 2016 a banned substance as per WADA, they would be celebrating her storied career and Sharapova would be basking in the glow of applause and laudatory statements.
As with any sports personality who makes a controversial announcement to the media about something controversial that has happened to them, the public only gets the bare surface of the story. We don’t know the details. For example, Sharapova said that she has been taking meldonium for 10 years – every day? every month? once a year? Sharapova said that she didn’t get the message about meldonium being a banned substance. Who exactly dropped the ball here – Sharapova? her doctors? her email wrangler? We are left to surmise the intricate details.
But it’s not up to Sharapova to provide us with anything more than what she has provided. That she showed up to make this announcement was more than what I expected. It was a good move though, sort of like a celebrity trumping the announcement of an extramarital affair by making it themselves instead of a gossip trade rag. This way, Sharapova controls both the timing of the announcement and how it is delivered – a classic PR power move.
Maria Sharapova controlled how the message was delivered but the fallout is now mainly out of her control. I can still see her or her team working this part of the story to her advantage to portray her circumstances in a positive light – her lengthy Facebook post thanking “everyone” for all the support being one such thing or drawing the ITF’s and WADA’s attention to the fact of other athletes who have taken the drug who also were unaware of the ban. The more cases of these athletes that come to light, the better her chances of a shorter sanction.
However, Maria Sharapova, by drawing attention to fellow athletes who also take this drug is doing herself no favour. Why are athletes taking this drug? Are they all sick, have early signs of diabetes, or have heart conditions? I doubt it. They take meldonium because it has performance enhancing properties -it reduces recovery time, aids oxygen uptake and enhances endurance. The number of athletes taking the drug certainly would raise the eyebrow of WADA which is probably why they investigated it and concluded that its performance enhancing properties was reason enough for it to be added to the banned drug list.
In the multi-million dollar industry that is Maria Sharapova, you would think that at least one person would keep their eye on the ball and bring it to her attention that meldonium was now a banned drug as of January 1. At the very least, they should have informed her way before that date that WADA was investigating the high number of athletes that took the drug. That should have been the writing on the wall that the drug’s time as use for the professional athlete was up.
So meldonium is now a banned performance enhancing drug. What about caffeine, and protein powder, and creatine, and hyperbaric chambers? Do they not enhance athletic performance? Maybe they should be banned as well. There is a line that WADA obviously has drawn to distinguish between chemically manufactured drugs that enhance performance that athletes take to gain an advantage over other athletes and other more naturally occurring devices that athletes use to gain an advantage over their rivals. Sharapova, one of the world’s most recognized athletes, has crossed that line and now she has to face the consequences.
That Sharapova is one of the top draws of women’s tennis should have no bearing on the sanction she receives. The game is bigger than her and her resulting absence. I don’t think we’ll see her play again in 2016. I’ll gamble that she receives a year suspension for violating the rules. I’ll be surprised if she gets two years. Four years (what former WADA head Dick Pound is suggesting) is out of the question. Her personal confession will count for a lot in her favour.
The greater issue here is athletes taking drugs deliberately manufactured to provide an advantage over other athletes. Meldonium is not one of these drugs. It was a legitimate drug used for health issues. However, somewhere along the sinister road of performance enhancing drugs, the drug’s performance enhancing properties were discovered, marketed and manipulated. Maria Sharapova is now one of the casualties.
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