Wednesday, 8 June 2016
THE REAL DARKNESS OF THE MARIA SHARAPOVA SCANDAL
In March, tennis star Maria Sharapova announced that she had tested positive for meldonium, a recently outlawed substance. On Thursday, a panel appointed by the International Tennis Federation announced her punishment: a two-year ban from competition. In its report, the three-member panel acknowledged that Sharapova’s violation was not deliberate: she was unaware that the World Anti-Doping Agency, or W.A.D.A., had added meldonium, a heart medication that increases blood flow and can thus help boost athletic performance, to its list of prohibited substances effective January 1 of this year. But the tribunal said she was at “very significant fault” because she had failed to disclose her use of meldonium, which dated back to 2006, to anti-doping officials, to members of her team apart from her longtime agent, Max Eisenbud, and to her doctors.
She is the sole author of her own misfortune,” the report concluded. In a statement released on her Facebook page, Sharapova denounced the two-year ban as “unfairly harsh” and said she would appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Sharapova, who is 29, had hoped to compete for Russia at the Rio Olympic Games; that is no longer a possibility, and if the verdict is upheld, the five-time major winner will not be allowed to return to competition until January 25, 2018, which could effectively mark the end of her career. While tennis players are enjoying unprecedented longevity these days—Serena Williams and Roger Federer will both turn 35 later this year and remain at the top of the rankings, and 51 of the 128 men in this year’s French Open main draw were over 30, a record—Sharapova’s game was already beginning to decline when she disclosed her positive meldonium result.
As motivated as she presumably will be to end her career on a less ignominious note, it is going to be tough for her to get back to where she was if she is sidelined for the next two years. As a former grand slam champion, she will be entitled to receive wild-card entries to tournaments, so she won’t necessarily suffer the indignity of having to fight through qualifying draws. Even so, 24 months out of competition could be ruinous.
Whatever becomes of her game, it is going to be difficult for her to rehabilitate her image, and prospects as a brand. After Sharapova announced the positive drug test, Tag Heuer said it would not be renewing its sponsorship deal with her, and both Nike and Porsche suspended their deals with her. In recent years, with her Sugarpova brand and other ventures, Sharapova had been setting herself up for a second career as an entrepreneur. However, her marketability has taken an enormous hit as a result of the meldonium scandal, and the two-year ban may well have dashed her hopes of building a business empire. Call it irony, call it poetic justice, call it what you will, but just two days ago, Forbes released its annual list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, and after 11 consecutive years as the world’s most richly compensated female performer, she has only now been supplanted by Serena Williams, perhaps the greatest player of all time. Even if her appeal is successful, it’s very unlikely now that Sharapova will ever reclaim that status, which perhaps Williams deserved all along.