Tribunal verdict shatters Maria Sharapova’s defence

Five-time Grand Slam winner told: ‘She is the sole author of her own misfortune’

The devastating 33-page judgment by an International Tennis Federation tribunal that deftly skewers Maria Sharapova’s defence for taking the performance-enhancing substance meldonium and delivers a potentially career ending two-year ban concludes in almost Shakespearean fashion: “She is the sole author of her own misfortune.”

The verdict, which lambasts her manager, Max Eisenbud, for his literally "unbelievable" evidence and does not look kindly on her special pleading that she stood to lose out on millions if she was banned, also shines a light on the moral maze in which modern sport finds itself.

“The contravention of the anti-doping rules was not intentional as Ms Sharapova did not appreciate that Mildronate, which contains meldonium, contained a substance prohibited from 1 January 2016. However she does bear sole responsibility for the contravention, and very significant fault, in failing to take any steps to check whether the continued use of this medicine was permissible,” it ruled. “If she had not concealed her use of Mildronate from the anti-doping authorities, members of her own support team and the doctors whom she consulted, but had sought advice, then the contravention would have been avoided.”

In precis, the tribunal ruled that taking the substance regularly at the Australian Open effectively proved that she did not know it had been banned. But it found that she was at “very significant fault” by failing to ascertain whether the drug was on the prohibited list.


Boil the well-written verdict down and it concludes that by the time of the 2016 Australian Open, “the manner in which the medication was taken, its concealment from the anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team, and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took Mildronate for the purpose of enhancing her performance”.

There has been speculation that Sharapova will lose out on $30m a year in earnings and endorsements, due to her disgrace. But far more damaging than the dent in her bank balance will be the blow to her reputation from a tribunal verdict that found she concealed the fact she was taking Mildronate from all bar her father, Eisenbud and the Russian Olympic doctor from 2010 onwards.

"It only emerged in evidence at the hearing that no member of Ms Sharapova's team, apart from Mr Eisenbud, actually knew that she was taking Mildronate," said the ruling of the three-man panel headed by Charles Flint QC.

While Sharapova would continue to write down various medications and vitamins on seven separate doping control forms between 2014 and 2016, she never disclosed that she was taking Mildronate. So even though the tribunal accepts that Sharapova did not know the drug was banned, it found her explanation for why she did not inform testers she was doing so – as is considered best practice – “untenable”.

“Ms Sharapova was cross-examined on the failure to disclose Mildronate on the list of medications she provided on doping control forms. Her explanation was that she understood the form only to require her to disclose a medication or supplement if she had taken it every day for the last seven days, because otherwise the list would be very long,” it said.

“In fact at Wimbledon 2015 she had used Mildronate six times in the past seven days, and, at the Australian Open 2016, five times in the past seven days. On the forms in evidence she had disclosed taking a number of substances including vitamin C, Omega 3, Biofenac and Voltaren [anti-inflammatories which may be taken orally or in gel form], Veramyst [a nasal spray containing a corticosteroid] and Melatonin [A HORMONE]. In most cases she declared only two of those substances on each form so that the list would not have been very long if she had added Mildronate.”

The saga began more than a decade earlier, as Sharapova originally revealed in her dramatic mea culpa in March this year. One year after her career-launching Wimbledon victory as a 17-year-old, the Russian started taking Mildronate as part of a cocktail of 18 substances prescribed by a Dr Skalny based on her family history. The tribunal found that while Dr Skalny had not diagnosed cardiovascular disease, the primary ailment it is used to treat, he was justified in prescribing it given her family history as a "cardioprotective agent and as a preventative agent for diabetes".

By 2010 the list of drugs Sharapova was taking – none of them on the banned list until meldonium was added on January 1st 2016 – had swollen to an extraordinary 30 that alongside Mildronate also included magnerot and riboxin. In 2013, Sharapova parted ways with Dr Skalny but decided to carry on taking those three substances. “That decision to continue to use those three substances from Dr Skalny’s list of 30 was taken without the benefit of any medical advice, either from Dr Skalny or from any other medical practitioner,” it said.

“So Ms Sharapova did not seek any advice about the therapeutic need to continue using Mildronate, nor the possible side-effects of doing so. She did not know the ingredients of Mildronate and had not read the manufacturers’ instructions for use.”

While the rest of her team knew about other vitamins and medications she was taking, responsibility for ensuring those three drugs were not on the banned list fell to Eisenbud. Which is where an excuse to rival Richard Gasquet’s “cocaine kiss” and Denis Mitchell’s bedroom prowess in the list of tall tales advanced in doping cases down the years comes in. Eisenbud claimed that while in previous years he had printed off the banned list and taken it to the Caribbean to consider by the pool, in 2015 he had not taken his annual vacation because he had split up with his wife. Hence, he argued, he never checked whether meldonium had been added – as it had in light of growing concerns that it was being taken for performance-enhancing reasons by huge swathes of athletes.

“His evidence did not explain why with that lack of understanding and expertise he was prepared to accept the important responsibility of checking whether Mildronate was prohibited, why he did not delegate this task to his assistant who could easily have made the necessary enquiries, or why it was necessary to take a file to the Caribbean to read by the pool when one email could have provided the answer,” it ruled. “The absence of any documents or records evidencing Mr Eisenbud’s system speaks for itself. Critically he does not explain why the three substances inherited from Dr Skalny’s regime were treated so differently from all the other medications and supplements which were vetted by the player’s medical team, not by him, and recorded in emails and medical records.”

Sharapova’s argument that the ITF, which had pushed for a four-year ban, had not discharged its duties in failing to warn her, was also rejected. The tribunal ruled that it had done so by publishing the prohibited list on its website and in its wallet cards. “Any player who had any doubts as to whether a substance was included within the prohibited list had the ability to carry out a word search of the Wada documents, or to seek advice through the ITF’s 24-hour hotline.” Nor did Sharapova’s argument that the ITF should have warned her when she failed a test for meldonium at Wimbledon in 2015 cut any ice.

For all the excuses, the mitigation, the carefully crafted announcement in March in which she admitted her guilt and even the inept excuses of her manager, the tribunal found that ultimately Sharapova – who immediately said she would appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport – had brought her downfall on herself.

(Guardian service)