How serious was Maria Sharapova’s doping?, Tennis’s ruling body passed judgment on Sharapova’s drug infractions this week, and though the possibility of an appeal remains, its report paints a picture of sustained use and concealment.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF)’s tribunal could hardly have been more matter of fact. “She is the sole author of her own misfortune,” the tribunal said in its 33-page judgment, after the Russian tested positive for the recently banned drug meldonium during the Australian Open in January. Although she has not contested the failed test, Sharapova said she took the drug before it was banned and for health reasons only, on the advice of her doctor, over a 10-year period. But the tribunal found that while she did not intentionally contravene anti-doping rules, Sharapova was responsible for the substance being in her system at the Australian Open, and for failing to notice that it had been added to the banned list in January. It said the 29-year-old had deliberately concealed her use of meldonium from the authorities, which require athletes to declare all frequently used medications, as well as from her own coaches and team.
Why was she not given a longer ban?
Sharapova’s admission that she had taken the drug after 1 January meant that she faced a ban of at least one year. But while the tribunal said it believed she had taken the drug to enhance her performance, it was satisfied she had not intended to cheat. She is banned until 26 January 2018, ruling her out of this summer’s Olympics and the next seven grand slam events. If she had been found to have deliberately violated anti-doping rules, she could have faced the maximum four-year ban.
Should she be hopeful about an appeal?
Sharapova is expected to lodge an appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas). It could be a profitable tactic, given that the court has been sympathetic to tennis players in the past. In 2013 it reduced Viktor Troicki’s 18-month ban for refusing to submit a blood sample to 12 months, and Marin Cilic’s nine-month ban for unknowingly ingesting a banned stimulant to four months. “We always viewed this as a two-step process – ITF first, then Cas for a final decision,” said John J Haggerty, the lawyer in charge of Sharapova’s case.
But why take meldonium?
When she made the failed test public in March, Sharapova claimed that she was prescribed meldonium by her doctor in 2006 to deal with health issues such as an irregular heartbeat and a family history of diabetes. But the tribunal found emails to Sharapova from Dr Anatoly Skalny – who began treating her in 2004, when she was 17, and continued until 2012 – that advised upping her dosage before key matches. Skalny said: “During games of special importance you can increase your Mildronate [the trade name for meldonium] dose to 3-4 pills (1hr before the match).”
Why was it on the banned list?
The World Anti-Doping Agency added the drug to its banned list because there was “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance” by virtue of carrying more oxygen to muscle tissue. The drug is manufactured in Latvia and is not licensed in the US. It has since emerged that scores of Russian athletes have tested positive for Mildronate in 2016. “At Wimbledon 2015 [Sharapova] had used Mildronate six times in the past seven days, and at the Australian Open five times in the past seven days,” the report said.
Did her support team really not know about it?
Equally damning was the revelation that Sharapova concealed the use of the drug from members of her support team. Only her father, the Russian Olympic doctor and her manager, Max Eisenbud, knew about it from 2010 onwards. Eisenbud claimed that while in previous years he had printed off the banned list and taken it with him on his annual Caribbean holiday to read by the pool, in 2015 he had not taken that holiday because he had split up with his wife, meaning he did not check up on meldonium’s status. His evidence was heavily criticised by the tribunal.
What was her doctor’s position?
Sharapova could have applied for a Therapeutic Use Exemption after the positive test. She parted company with Skalny in 2013. The number of drugs she was taking on his advice had increased to 30 by 2010, and included Mildronate, magnerot and riboxin. Although her team knew about other medications and vitamins, it was down to Eisenbud to monitor those three items. The report found that there was “no diagnosis or therapeutic advice” supporting the need for meldonium by 2016, and that Sharapova had not sought advice about it.
Why would a tennis player want to dope?
Optimists might argue that doping cannot improve a tennis player’s technique. But the sport has become brutally physical in the modern era, and tournaments tend to be won by the fittest players.
What does the episode say about the attitude towards doping in tennis on a wider scale?
The ITF’s approach towards doping was questioned after Sharapova took it upon herself to announce her failed test at a press conference in Los Angeles. Its claims that testing is random have been contradicted by players who have said testing only happens after a defeat. Anti-doping experts have warned that players who are microdosing could slip through the net. Some players want the sport to be more transparent. “In the past a lot of times people have said that it is [just] the lesser names that have come out, even though there have actually been more big names than you would think over the years,” Andy Murray said.