As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the world’s highest-earning female athlete is smack dab in the middle of a doping scandal, and she has nobody to blame but herself.
On Monday, in an impromptu but meticulously orchestrated press conference in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with what she deemed “fairly ugly carpet,” tennis superstar Maria Sharapova announced that she failed a drug test at the Australian Open in January.
Ten years ago, her story goes, she was prescribed a medicine called mildronate by her family doctor due to irregular EKGs, frequent bouts with the flu, and a family history with diabetes. Mildronate is also called meldonium, a substance that was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency beginning January 1, 2016. She was alerted to this by email, but she didn’t open the necessary attachment, and took the substance at the first major tournament of the year without knowing it was banned.
It was, she said, a “huge mistake.”
The reaction to the announcement has run the gamut — depending on who you ask, Sharapova is either an innocent-yet-ditzy blonde with a heart condition, or a systematic doper just like her Russian peers.
But as shock gives way to outrage and hand-wringing, it’s important to remember that the truth likely lies somewhere in the muddled, morally confounding middle where image is everything and intention is actually irrelevant.
The Morality Of Meldonium
One reason that this case has left so many fans and experts perplexed is because until four days ago, meldonium was a relatively unknown drug in America, and there are disparate opinions as to how much performance enhancing the drug is actually capable of. This isn’t exactly a situation where a syringe filled with steroids was spotted in a locker.
In short, meldonium is a heart medicine that improves blood flow. It is made in Latvia and available over-the-counter in Russia and other Eastern European countries, but it’s not approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). (Sharapova’s lawyer, John Haggerty, said that Sharapova always followed the FDA’s guidelines for the personal importation of drugs.)
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) began monitoring the use of the drug last year after rumors spread of its abuse, and added it to the banned list when it showed up in an alarming 2.2 percent of samples, “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance.”
The drug was used regularly and openly in Russian athletic circles, with the belief that it increased energy and endurance, decreased recovery time, and helped heart problems. But it was viewed more as a vitamin than a performance enhancing drug (PED). One Russian trainer told the New York Times, “we could never imagine that it would be included as a doping substance.”
Still, there are differing opinions about the extent of the drug’s benefits for otherwise healthy athletes. “The evidence around whether it is a performance-enhancing drug is quite thin,” said Mark Stuart, a pharmacist in London who is on the medical and anti-doping commission of the European Olympic Committees.
As a doctor told me, meldonium isn't approved in USA…because it's useless. "Gonna use a PED? Pick one that works."https://t.co/vfGRbqGyaJ
— Ben Rothenberg (@BenRothenberg) March 11, 2016
But WADA’s ban of the drug has hit athletes hard — in the first three months of the year, more than 60 athletes have already tested positive for the drug.
The Impact Of An Image
We’re not used to hearing about failed drug tests directly from athletes themselves, at least not before days or weeks or years of rumors and speculation. That’s why it was so surprising when Sharapova called a press conference to get ahead of the story, and didn’t play the blame game or deny that the drug was in her system.
“I did fail the test, and I take full responsibility for it,” she said.
Some, such as Serena Williams, said Sharapova showed “courage and heart” by coming forward with her confession.
Still, it’s hard not to imagine the outrage that would ensue if Serena failed a doping test. Of course, Serena has been dogged by doping rumors her entire career, primarily because of her muscular frame and her dominance. Sharapova doesn’t look like a stereotypical doper — she’s slender and fair. As Bryan Armen Graham writes at the Guardian, it “strikes at the heart of white privilege.”
But it’s not necessarily fair to manufacture outrage towards Sharapova just to even out the unrelenting scrutiny that Serena has endured throughout the years. This isn’t a reputation see-saw, where putting one athlete down lifts the other up.
This is a battle of perception, which is why many saw Sharapova’s press conference less as an act of bravery and more as a calculating move that allowed her to control the narrative, instead of getting run over by it.
No matter your take, the press conference was very true to the Sharapova Empire — staged, smart, and strategic. After all, she didn’t become the highest-earning female athlete in the world accidentally. While on the court, Sharapova’s known for her competitiveness, off the court it’s her composure and cunning business-sense.
Which, again, is why so many find it baffling that nobody in the Sharapova Empire checked the list of WADA banned substances for 2016. This whole scandal could have been avoided so easily.
“Again, this part isn’t about guilt or innocence,” Jon Wertheim said in Sports Illustrated. “If Sharapova had been using this drug for performance-enhancing purposes, she would have stopped. If it were therapeutic purposes, she could have requested a (therapeutic use exemption) TUE. That she did neither speaks to a remarkable error of omission.”
In a way, Sharapova’s passion and professionalism throughout her long career created a well of credibility, one that makes it tempting to give her the benefit of the doubt. But athletes have fooled us before.
The Intent Factor
Sharapova’s provisional suspension from tennis begins on Saturday. Soon, a three-person panel appointed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) will meet to discuss her fate.
The 28-year-old faces up to a four-year suspension, though the usual suspension for first-time offenders is more like two years. Of course, Sharapova’s lawyers are lobbying for more leniency. Paul Greene, an American sports lawyer and founder of Global Sports Advocates, has experience representing athletes in arbitration cases for doping. He told the New York Times that this comes down to “degrees of fault.”
“There are three degrees of fault: a significant degree of fault, which is 16 to 24 months; a normal degree of fault, which is eight to 16 months; and a light degree of fault, which is zero to eight months,” Greene said.
CREDIT: Aaron Favila, AP
Essentially, that means the committee will be trying to ascertain whether or not Sharapova was intentionally taking meldonium to enhance her performance or just to treat medical conditions, and whether she’s being truthful when she says she didn’t see the updated WADA list at the start of the year.
Of course, analyzing intent after the fact and dividing fault into subjective degrees is a dangerous game to play — How can you ever really know? — but the panel will go through the motions anyways and determine a punishment they deem appropriate.
What is going to be much more interesting is to see how (or if) the public decides to punish Sharapova. For those who aren’t die-hard Sharapova fans it will likely come down to personal moral stances on performance enhancing and cheating.
Because even if the Russian wasn’t taking the pill for so-called proper reasons, she was only breaking a WADA rule for 25 days. The rest of the time, any advantage she was or wasn’t getting from the pill was legal. So retroactively shaming her for something that might not have even been helping her — and that was within the rules — is fruitless.
Sure, there need to be rules in place to discourage dangerous drug abuse and keep the playing field as even as possible. But athletes are always looking to push the limits, whether it’s with platelet-rich plasma therapy or hyperbaric chambers. They take legal supplements and vitamins all the time, try crazy diets. They also cheat the system on the court, like with in-match coaching or strategically-timed medical timeouts in tennis.
Great athletes always want to be greater. The question is, when does that desire stop becoming something we cheer and start becoming something we’re appalled by? Where is the line drawn?
In this case, the line is right there at January 1, 2016.
Sharapova certainly deserves at least a minimal suspension for failing a drug test — there was a clear rule in place, and she broke it. But beyond that, everything else is fuzzy.