Sunday 11 December 2016

Vincent Hogan: Maria's self-pitying turn revisits gap between what's legal and ethical

Published 12/03/2016 | 02:30

Maria Sharapova is fighting back
Maria Sharapova is fighting back

Admit it. When a beautiful woman asks for understanding, you come to see how crisis-management can acquire a creative power of its own.

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In funereal black, Maria Sharapova was lady-like perfection. A cross between a Givenchy model and a Sunday School child making sad eyes at the world. No studio mogul could fail to be impressed by a (roughly) seven-minute presentation that made damn sure the first draft of this story would be hers, not some emotionally sterile administrator's.

It had the desired effect of a PR brochure, colleagues lauding her "courage", tennis officials speaking of her "integrity".

And Maria herself, tuned in to the turmoil of the moment, was contrite as a politician left to explain some grubby infidelity - "I made a huge mistake" - though not quite side-stepping the impression that, once all the facts had been established, this failed test would be regarded as nothing more than an innocent triviality.

Watching, it was hard to reconcile how this woman so famously fastidious in how she leads her life could have been so cavalier about ingesting a drug that had been on WADA's 'watch-list' for all of 2015. Maria is so protective of her 'brand', the idea of this being some simple oversight is a little hard to square.

And it is clear that the levels of communication declaring meldonium a banned substance from January 1 last were far more comprehensive than the single email she implied had somehow slipped her attention. Maria, we are now told, would have received up to five warnings.

So given the ruinous commercial implications of a failed test for the world's most marketable female athlete, it seems rather baffling that her entire empire wasn't more sharply attuned to the everyday business of staying legal.

But Maria came to this story like something that had just toppled off an easel. With confessional voice and hands choreographed to convey intimacy of delivery, she looked a million miles removed from the hulking, bearded lady image we conventionally associate with female drugs cheats.

It was tempting to raise a glass to, if nothing else, her comic boldness.

Professional sport is almost impossibly rotten today, with tennis, it seems, right up there in the stinking vanguard. Trouble is, we are conditioned to fixate on legalities when we should be asking simpler questions. The medicalisation of sport doesn't begin with WADA's list, it ends there.

Why was Sharapova taking a drug for chronic heart failure when she patently does not have that condition? Why were roughly 17pc of Russian athletes tested last year found to have meldonium in their systems?

And why has it been linked to Ethiopian distance runners, Georgian wrestlers, Ukrainian biathletes and Russian speed skaters too? Angina? Seriously? How come so many distance runners are cursed with asthma? Of course, it could be that they're all pure as an Alpine dawn, but isn't it odd that so many of the world's fittest athletes seem to be, well, sick?

You'll probably remember Kelli White here. She was narcoleptic, which meant she just kept falling asleep at the most inconvenient of moments. Which is why she had to ingest industrial quantities of Modafinil. To keep awake, essentially.

Dirty

Next thing, BALCO happened, uncovering all of Kelli's dirty little secrets and what do you know, she cut a deal. She became a whistleblower. One of the gold medals she won at the 2003 World Championships in Paris was handed to Russian sprinter Anastasiya Kapachinskaya. A year later, yep, Kapachinskaya was done for steroids.

Now we're not for one moment suggesting Maria Sharapova to be in that kind of oily category.

But her acknowledged 10-year use of meldonium surely requires a more convincing explanation than anything yet submitted. There's a broad view about that Sharapova could avoid a lengthy suspension by accessing the 'Therapeutic Use Exemption' clause now and, if that happens, we might even see her in Rio in August.

Trouble is, as Russia's Sports Minister helpfully explained, meldonium's popularity with his country's athletes might have something to do with the fact that, as he put it, the drug "helped a lot of people with their recovery times". Soviet troops were, after all, given it while fighting in Afghanistan during the '80s to boost their stamina.

Now Maria's use of it might have been entirely innocent, but people can be forgiven for drawing bleak enough conclusions.

Bear in mind too that Novak Djokovic's controversial pressure chamber pod, said to be twice as effective as blood doping at helping the body absorb oxygen, is technically legal despite WADA's declaration that it contravenes the "spirit of the sport".

Of course, there's a sense that tennis has never had much appetite for this kind of investigation either.

Three years ago, Tomas Berdych - then ranked No 6 in the world - suggested that his sport's policing of doping "cannot be worse".

We still don't know how Sharapova accessed a drug not licenced in America or Western Europe and we have, as yet, no precise detail on the actual extent of her use. But we do know that she's "taking full responsibility", whatever that will prove to be.

Some of her sponsors have decided against waiting to find out, Nike among those who have already chosen to cut their ties with the Russian.

Review

Clearly, the company's strategy of embracing notoriety and monetising infamy is under sudden review now. The people who gave us a philosophy of 'Winning Takes Care of Everything' when Tiger Woods was crashing into fire hydrants and who have thrown their marketing arms around Justin Gatlin, a twice-busted drugs cheat, seem suddenly to be engulfed in some kind of philosophical crisis.

Maybe they would like us to see this as a crucible moment in professional sport's relationship with good taste, but it smacks instead of a convenient expression of popcorn morality.

In the meantime, our concept of sport slips ever deeper into some kind of depressing after-life, the prevailing focus still on staying within the law, not simply competing clean. The question shouldn't really be what is legal here, but what is ethical?

Maria's marvellous self-pitying turn should not obscure that.

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