Sharapova should be banned for four years

Date: March 11, 2016 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

maria-sharapovaMaria Sharapova did what few athletes accused of doping do – she admitted guilt.

In a well-crafted media conference on Monday she made all the right utterances. She was sorry, profoundly so, with her apology directed to the fans and the sport itself.

Such was her contrition she informed the anti-doping authorities there was no need to undertake the normal follow-up test on her B-sample – put simply she was guilty of ingesting a banned substance.

She received brownie points from many for getting on the front foot.

The reaction from players, both past and present, however ran the entire spectrum.

World number one Serena Williams, who is neither a fan nor friend of Sharapova, praised the Russian, saying she “showed a lot of courage to admit what she had done and what she had neglected to look at”.

No thoughts were proffered by Williams on what sanctions Sharapova should be dealt.

Fellow American and dual Australian Open winner, Jennifer Capriati left nobody in any doubt as to what should happen to the former world number one.

She took to social media to lambast Sharapova and she did not hold back. She demanded she be stripped of her 35 professional career titles which includes two French Opens and wins at each of the other grand slams.

Capriati’s reaction was predicated on the fact that Sharapova admitted to having used the banned substance, meldonium, for ten years.

Capriati’s desire simply cannot happen.

Up until 1 January this year Sharapova, and any other athlete, was free to use meldonium as it was not on the WADA banned list. The authorities cannot touch her career record and prizemoney earned prior to 1 January.

Rightly, she has been stripped of her $400,000 cheque for progressing to the quarter-final stage of this year’s Australian Open, the event at which she returned the positive test.

As of this weekend she will be under a provisional one-year ban from the sport whilst the relevant authorities determine just how long her final ban from the sport should be.

As of 1 January 2015, WADA doubled the penalty for a first doping offence to a minimum four years.

While deliberate cheating leads to the four-year ban, athletes guilty of “inadvertent doping” receive a two-year ban – although they can get a further reduction if they have “substantial proof that they were not at fault or intending to cheat”.

It is these clauses that will be taken into account in imposing the final ban of Sharapova.

Since her media mea culpa on Monday there has been growing evidence that would support the world’s highest-earning sportswoman receiving the maximum four-year suspension, or at least, close to it.

She admitted on Monday to not having read the email from WADA which outlined that meldonium would be added to the prohibited list on 1 January. Since then it has come to light that players had been advised repeatedly prior to the drug’s inclusion on the banned list that it was on the WADA watch list.

Alerts were issued to every player on the circuit – male and female – three times by the sport’s overarching peak body, the International Tennis Federation while the Women’s Tennis Association sent out two warnings.

These were an automatic heads-up to any players who were taking the drug that they needed to quit doing so.

Hence Sharapova, on six separate occasions, was supplied with information about the pending addition of meldonium to the banned list and the fact that it had indeed become a banned substance.

At her media conference she only alluded to the fact that she had not opened nor read the email that stated that the drug had been placed on the banned list, the last of the six alerts she received.

To fail to read that communique was a major error by Sharapova. To seemingly not have read the preceding five warnings smacks of an athlete who holds anti-doping in her sport in scant regard.

Former WADA president, Canadian lawyer Dick Pound, labeled Sharapova’s actions as “reckless beyond belief”.

As for the drug itself, the sole manufacturer is based in Riga, the capital of Latvia.

Interestingly the United States, where Sharapova has been based for 15 years, has not approved the drug for human use with the Food and Drug Administration yet to give it the tick of approval despite the fact that is has been in production since the early-1970s.

Sharapova stated on Monday that she has used the drug for the past decade as a result of suffering from a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes.

At no point during the process during which meldonium moved from the watched list to the banned list did Sharapova seemingly push to receive a medical exemption for its use.

In early-2015 studies were conducted worldwide to ascertain the prevalence of meldonium use among elite athletes as there were growing concerns that it was being ingested in order to improve oxygen uptake.

The results, taken from 8300 random samples had alarm bells ringing at WADA, as researchers found that 182 samples showed traces of the drug.

That figure represented more than twice the rate of any single drug on WADA’s banned list.

It seemed clear to the authorities that meldonium was being used on a widespread basis to boost athletic performance.

Since it was banned on 1 January, a further eight athletes have returned positive tests – five Russians, two Ukrainians and a Swede.

Questions have been raised in the medical community about the likely benefits that Sharapova would have received with respect to the two reasons she gave for her use of the drug.

Some have said that meldonium would do little, if anything, to impact on the conditions Sharapova admitted to.

Additionally, other medicos have stated that meldonium would never be prescribed to a healthy, young athlete for more than a 4-6 week treatment cycle which flies in the face of Sharapova’s admission of having used the drug for a decade.

In the end, the key error Sharapova made was the fact that despite receiving five written warnings that a drug she had freely used for a decade was on WADA’s watch list and a subsequent email stating it had been banned, she flagrantly disregarded all six pieces of correspondence.

As impressive as her media conference was it seems fanciful that she will escape a lengthy ban.

It could well be argued that given the myriad warnings she received about meldonium and her refusal to cease using it she is in fact guilty of deliberate and calculated doping.

Such a finding would see her outed for four years.

On the face of the evidence put forward to date that may not be an unreasonable result.

At 28, a woman who should have been remembered for her tennis and the image she carefully constructed on the way to becoming women’s sports biggest earner, may well go down in the annals of sport with the most unwanted of reputations – that of a flagrant drug cheat.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 10 March 2016, soliciting 168 comments