Comment: Why Maria Sharapova doesn't deserve our sympathy
The rush to exonerate and even praise Maria Sharapova for for her story-owning “honesty” shows what the anti-doping movement is up against. Problem one is the pharmaceutical cheating.
Problem two is the naivety that drives people who should know better to rally round the accused before they have looked fully at the evidence.
If the “Maria Shara-Dopa” headline was at one end of the reaction scale, there was enough at the sympathy end to make you fear the scale of performance-enhancing drug use is still not properly comprehended.
As the apology industry tested out a new playbook with Sharapova’s expression of regret before the news of her failed dope test had even broken, commiserations flooded in from fellow players and (more worryingly) people whose prime concern ought to be the integrity of their sport.
“I am very saddened to hear this news about Maria,” declared Steve Simon, head of the Women’s Tennis Association. “Maria is a leader and I have always known her to be a woman of great integrity.”
“Throughout her career Maria has always impressed with her professionalism as a leader and role model in our sport,” Tennis Australia chipped in.
And then along came the obligatory senior Russian official. “I think this is just a load of nonsense,” said Shamil Tarpishchev, president of the Russian Tennis Federation. “The sportsmen take what they are given by the physiotherapists and by the doctors.”
Leaving aside this Soviet-era edict, from a country with a state sponsored doping programme in Olympic sports, Sharapova may well be the “leader” and “role model” many on the circuit believe her to be.
Read more here:
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But the rush to absolve her on grounds of personality and marketability is alarming. For a start, it shows there are different layers of judgment for the star of the women’s tennis circuit and, say, a calloused shot putter who tries to explain away a positive doping test as a “mistake”.
This was Sharapova’s ace in that Los Angeles hotel. Her error, she claimed, was simply not reading an email that told her the substance she had been taking for 10 years was now on the Wada banned list. John Haggerty, her lawyer, later told Sports Illustrated: “It was only for these 25 days in January that she had something in her body that was a prohibitive substance.”
The strategy, plainly, was to deflect attention away from the question of why Sharapova had taken meldonium since she was 18 years old and on to those “25 days in January”.
Question one: did the “family doctor” who prescribed meldonium (a heart drug developed in Latvia to aid blood flow) do so in the United States, where it is not approved for sale, or did she acquire it outside her country of residence, and if so, why exactly?
Haggarty again: “I want people to know that for 10 years Maria took this substance, which was recommended to her by her doctor after he did an extensive battery of tests to determine what medical conditions were causing her to be sick on a frequent basis.
“He found that she had abnormal EKG [electrocardiogram] readings, that she had some diabetes indicators, and when he coupled that with a family medical history of those issues, as well as low magnesium and some immune deficiencies, it was his job as her doctor to prescribe or recommend the medication that would help her be healthy.”
Read more here:
- Russian tennis boss expects Maria Sharapova to play at Rio and slams drug test as 'nonsense'
- Maria Sharapova: Meldonium maker's claim normal course lasts 4-6 weeks, not 10 years
It is important of course to stress that meldonium was not on the banned list until Sharapova fell foul of it at the Australian Open in January; but an alternative interpretation of her use of it is that it was a legal way to enhance her performances for a decade.
At the very least there is a lot more scrutiny to apply to this case before sport starts praising her for her courage in pre-empting the official announcement. For example: has she been taking anything else?
Yet one fellow player, Jamie Hampton, tweets: “I do not want to see Maria Sharapova’s career end on an honest mistake.” Madison Keys chips in: “Very classy of her after an honest mistake.”
Jennifer Capriati, though, had other ideas. “What’s the point of someone taking a heart medicine that helps your heart recover faster unless you have a heart condition? Is that accurate?”
It is quite an 'achievement’ for a sports star these days to get Nike to suspend their endorsement contract, yet Sharapova has managed it with this confession. At the heart of this jumble are questions about the calculated nature of her mea culpa and her precise medical and drug-taking records.
The “25 days in January” defence raises more questions than it answers. Alternatively, we can allow a slick press conference to provide the last word.