Maria got lucky. Why two years wasn’t enough.


“The duties of a player are set out at article 1.12 which reads:
“It is the sole responsibility of each Player…

1.12.3 to ensure that anything he/she ingests or Uses, as well as any medical
treatment he/she receives, does not give rise to an Anti-Doping Rules
Violation under this Programme …”

-ITF Tennis Anti-Doping Programme 2016.

After a personal announcement in March of her positive test to meldonium Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova has been served a two-year for taking the banned substance.

The former world number one plans to appeal the ruling of the International Tennis Federation’s panel who adopted the mid-range ban of two years. The authorities missed the chance to hand down a four-year ban (the maximum currently allowable) and one wonders at what level of shear incompetence and arrogance a player will ever receive the ban under similar circumstances.

Sharapova has been taking the medication, which was elevated to a banned substance late last year for addition to the 2016 list, for various issues including a heart condition. It turns out various levels of incompetence have resulted in the ban. Singularly some of these should be enough for the two-year ban alone, combined they signal why it should be more.

The detailed reasoning for the decision released by the ITF, which should be Sharapova’s starting point for any appeal displays the ten-year love story with the medication that went horribly wrong.

Sharapova, from 2005, was initially prescribed 18 medications or supplements to deal with medical issues related to family histories. This was done under the guidance of her doctor Anatoly Skalny. The figure of 18 medications or supplements should ring alarm bells in terms of the severity with which her team must pay great detail to her supplements, nutrition and hydration over the course of the career. More so than other top line athletes. That’s a huge red flag even if all of the treatments were on the banned list at the time.

The ITF report also provided evidence the 29 year-old had previously emailed WTA staff about certain medications in a four-year span with details of previous. Even setting aside the World Anti-Doping Authority and relevant national anti-doping platforms to get the details from Sharapova has previously displayed a clear and precise understanding of how to get the details just within her sport (aka via the WTA). The other excuses (sorry, reasons) given about buried in ‘spam’ e-mails and missed chances at tournaments to be told about any WADA Anti-Doping List amendments.

Further to the understanding of the processes the use of mildronate (the other name the drug is known by) was not known by certain members of her team, including those responsible for aspects of her diet and nutrition which shows either incompetence or implied duplicity from those that did know.

The most glorious excuse for #teamshazza about not having an understanding about the addition of mildronate to the banned list was from IMG’s Max Eisenbud – Sharapova’s manager. Eisenbud explained he would review the anti-doping list changes each year on his year-ending holiday which he didn’t take in 2015 due to his marriage breakdown. Unsurprisingly this very efficient-sounding process by Eisenbud who is not medically qualified didn’t work. The error is highlighted by Owen Gibson’s analysis in The Guardian. Quite why Eisenbud could not have got a staff member at IMG to review the documents is beyond me. Eisenbud admits he had his staff print the documents off for him to review!

In the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary ‘Broke’, which outlines the parlous financial situation of many elite athletes in North America, one of the contributors notes ‘it’s not your manager who should negotiate your contract and handle your finances’. The emphasis is that staff with specific expertise should execute those roles. A skilled negotiator might not be able to balance overall finances well. The tennis version of Broke would tell us if you are an elite athlete your manager probably shouldn’t also be your medical consultant and key anti-doping document reader. Especially since said person has been your manager since you were 12 years of age and you know they would not have time to have developed a deep understanding of the trends associated with supplements given they manage your burgeoning portfolio. Eisenbud’s blasé attitude is not the first time IMG staff and their integrity have been called into question in elite tennis and the ITF’s panel was scathing in response to Eisenbud’s processes, “The completely inadequate manner in which he claimed to have carried out his checks could not come close to discharging the player’s duty of utmost caution.”

Back to Sharapova’s doctor, crucially, in 2013 Skalny ceased work as her physician. Any new practitioner post this point should have done a new regime of tests to check which of the substances was still relevant for use. Since 2005 any number of things could have happened including (a) a certain medicine has a new version which operates a more practical solution to a particular problem and (b) she may not even need to take it any more as her susceptibility to the disease may have dissipated. Putting it very simplistically, people can often have allergies to certain products take medication, or alternative food sources to overcome this and their body (over time) becomes ‘naturally’ immune to the allergy and can go back to the product with no problems. Surely, in 2016, what Sharapova took should have been different to 2005?

The other aspect about the medical history that has bothered me from the start of this saga was why was this not played up as part of the ‘Sharapova narrative’? Young player works hard, overcomes major medical conditions just to play, wonders of medical science combined with her persistence to overcome etc etc. You get my drift. Reasonably Sharapova may not have wanted to make this health issue known but if she was susceptible to certain illnesses such as diabetes with her profile alone she would have been a terrific advocate to raise awareness and maybe assist in promoting charitable research causes. I’m not sure if it’s possible but this could have made the Russian even more of a media darling and sought after athlete.

She could also have reasonably have applied for a Therapeutic Use Exemption. If relevant and approved that was an avenue available to the Russian and her team but instead they continue to speed down Mildronate Freeway ignoring all the signposts and off-ramps. She should have faced the heaviest possible sanction.

Athletes in other sports rarely have the support Sharapova would have in terms of a ‘personal team’. They don’t have access to managers of the same ilk and may be training whilst also holding down a full-time job. That is not Sharapova’s fault but the punishment should be commensurate with the infraction in this case the test result is clear, the players (multiple) staff were at best incompetent and at worst complicit in the cheating plus the warnings given directly to the player around processes in the past were roundly ignored even though they had a clear understanding of how to go about sourcing the details.

Age shouldn’t be factored into the ban as such but it’s worth noting that USA tennis star Serena Williams has won majors (five) past the age of 31 so if any player had the pedigree to return at the age of 31 and win one of the four slams, or more, it would be Sharapova whose last major singles win was the 2014 French Open title.

The Florida resident should be returning at the age of 33. Full-stop. If a player in the most enabled, cobbled and cocooned sporting environment can’t get this right then what is the point of these bans? It offers no disincentive.

Rather gallingly for any athletes in ‘minor’ sports Sharapova will continue to be supported by sponsors including Nike and there is no sanction for Eisenbud who can continue on his merry way managing athletes. Sharapova is not Eisenbud’s only tennis-related client so I’m sure he will do fine out of the ‘ban’. He has got his cut of the (reported USD8.5 million) Nike deal to start with.

Suddenly the two-year ban doesn’t look that bad nor does the loss of 430 ranking points and prize-money worth $281,633 (AUD) from the Australian Open.

About Hamish Neal

Born in Lower Hutt New Zealand Hamish is forever wedded to all things All Black, All Whites, Tall Blacks and more. Writing more nowadays in his 'spare time' (what is that anyway?) but still with a passion for broadcasting. Has worked in various sports development roles in England, Northern Ireland and Australia.

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