Dark cloud now hanging over Maria Sharapova

How tennis authorities deal with their golden girl after positive drug test will be revealing

Over the coming weeks and months an interesting observation may be made on divergent sporting cultures and Maria Sharapova will be central to the drama.

As the treatment of five-times Grand Slam champion Sharapova, Russian cyclist, Eduord Vorganov and former 1,500 metres world champion, Sweden’s Abeba Aregawi unfold in the hands of their governing bodies following recent positive tests, how hard will the hammer fall on each athlete.

Two bodies, including the Women’s Tennis Association, have already shown their hand with regard to Sharapova’s positive sample announced on Monday and that of Aregawi.

"Maria is a leader and I have always known her to be a woman of great integrity," said WTA chief executive Steve Simon.


Hard bitten athletics was treading a more furious, threadbare path.

"We totally reject all forms of cheating, doping and illegal means. We have a zero tolerance and this is totally unacceptable," said Swedish Athletics secretary general Stefan Olsson in response to Aregawi's positive test.

All have tested positive for the same "heart attack" drug meldonium, tracked by the World Anti Doping Agency (Wada) in 2015 and made illegal this year due to the proliferation of its misuse by athletes.

Wada declared the decision to prohibit its use on its website more than three months before the ban began on January 1st, 2016 and it was also announced by the Russian anti-doping agency.

As is often the case, the unethical use of freely available, legal drugs by athletes who consume them to enhance performance usually gets the drug on to the Wada banned list. Meldonium, like Erythropoietin (EPO), is no different.

No defence

A suspension of up to four years awaits the famously meticulous Sharapova, who took responsibility for allegedly not knowing the drug had been outlawed 25 days before she tested positive.

But in what has become a doping world of cynicism, mendacity and distrust, Sharapova’s apparent failure to open the email sent to her is no defence against the strict liability that prevails in sport. A retrospective Therapeutic Use Exemption, which arose as a possible loophole, is according to experts used only in exceptional circumstances and not applicable.

The real issue for Sharapova’s already damaged image and earnings that ran to €27 million in 2015, is who believes her.

From the comments on social media many in the tennis industry do. But she will be 29-years-old next month and even a reduced two-year ban would be a career-ending blow for her tennis.

In 2015 the German public broadcaster WDR published a study conducted on Russian athletes and found that 724 from a sample of 4136 athletes were using meldonium (or mildronate), then perfectly legal. That’s 17 per cent, all perhaps with heart conditions, low magnesium or potential diabetes, as Sharapova claimed she had.

Proving why she took the drug is an entirely different matter. Meldonium is a drug only available in Russia and the Baltic countries, one not approved by the USA’s Food and Drug Administration and therefore not available in her adopted country, the United States, or in Europe. For a resident of Bradenton, Florida, that decision to import the drug looks at best flawed.

But the support for Sharapova coming from within the game – arch nemesis Serena Williams, a most unlikely soft shoulder being the latest – is unnerving and naïve.

As sponsors TAG Heuer, Porche and Nike exit her life, few of note except Caroline Woznaicki and Jennifer Capriati have arrived to the debate with a noose. But the biggest name, although not the best player in the women's game, could be cursed by all that went before her.

In past months tennis has been criticised for its preservation of the image of the sport at the expense of transparency and openness.

Zero tolerance

Earlier this year it was revealed that two professional umpires, who allegedly took bribes to manipulate scores during matches, were secretly banned by the ITF, while the sports watchdog, the Tennis Integrity Unit, was accused of not doing enough about stamping out corruption.

In the past Mats Wilander and Martina Hingis were banned for cocaine use but more recently Viktor Troicki was banned for 12 months for missing a blood test at the 2013 Monte Carlo Masters and Marin Cilic had a nine-month ban reduced to four months the same year. Andy Murray at the time called them both "unprofessional".

“There almost has to be zero tolerance on that stuff because, if not, people are just going to think they can get away with anything,” added Murray. The Scottish player has adapted well to the demands of the modern game, which has become a full-blooded endurance sport. Sharapova knows it as two of her five Grand Slam titles were won at the French Open, where the clay surface places huge physical demands with four- and five-hour matches not uncommon.

But the Latvian company that manufactures meldonium said yesterday the normal course of treatment for the drug is four to six weeks and not the 10 years Sharapova says she used the substance. It was designed, say the company, for patients with chronic heart and circulation conditions and those recovering from illness or injury. It was banned, say Wada, because it aids oxygen uptake and endurance. These are pertinent points.

This is the place where Sharapova now stands.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times