Maria Sharapova has been found guilty of committing a doping violation and has been sentenced to a two-year ban period backdated to January 26, 2016—the day she failed her drug test in Melbourne at the Australian Open.
Is the ban justified? Should Sharapova have been dealt with more leniently?
Let’s try and seek some answers, shall we?
The Independent Tribunal appointed by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) consisted of Charles Flint QC, Dr. Barry O’Driscoll and Dr. José A. Pascual.
John J. Haggerty of Fox Rothschild LLP and Howard L Jacobs represented Maria Sharapova and Johnathan Taylor and Lauren Pagé of Bird & Bird LLP presented the case for the International Tennis Federation.
Sharapova was subjected to an additional out-of-competition test on the 2nd of February, 2016 in which meldonium was discovered as well. For the purposes of the tribunal, the results were treated as a single anti-doping violation.
The judgment rested on four legs of a just table:
“(1) Whether the player can establish that the violation of article 2.1 was not intentional within the meaning of article 10.2.3. If so, then the period of ineligibility to be imposed is 2 years; if not, the period of ineligibility to be imposed is 4 years.
(2) Whether under article 10.5.2 the player can establish that she had no significant fault or negligence, in which case the period of ineligibility may be reduced to a minimum of 1 year.
(3) Whether the ITF is estopped from asserting any fault on the part of the player.
(4) Whether the player can invoke the principle of proportionality so as to avoid or mitigate the sanctions that follow from the rules.”
The ITF’s case rested on whether they could prove that Maria Sharapova knowingly disregarded the risk of contravening the anti-doping rules and thus committed an intentional violation.
Sharapova’s lawyers sought to prove that the ITF were well aware that she had failed a Mildronate test in 2015 and thus she ought to have been warned by the ITF explicitly that she would come under the scanner given that Mildronate had been added to the banned substances list.
The ITF were , however, provided the list of last year’s offenders only in March this year; privacy and security concerns are the reasons offered for the list not being provided to the ITF earlier. This effectively negated any assertion from the defendant that the ITF couldn’t assert any fault on Sharapova’s part.
Sharapova submitted that she was first prescribed the said drug in 2005 by Dr. Anatoly Skalny of the Centre for Biotic Medicine in Moscow. She was prescribed a list of 18 medications in total for a “mineral metabolism disorder, insufficient supply of nutrients from food intake and other abnormalities which made it necessary to boost the immune system.”
The prescription for Mildronate was as follows:
“Mildronate 1-2 X 10, repeat in 2 wks (before training or competition)
1 hr before competition, 2 pills of Mildronate
During games of special importance, you can increase your Mildronate dose to 3-4 pills (1 hr before the match). However, it is necessary to consult me on all these matters (please call)
30 minutes prior to a training session: Mildronat – 1 Capsule. 30-45 minutes prior to a tournament Mildronat 2 capsules”.
The drug was also further recommended whenever:
“complaints arose regarding fatigue related to overexertion,[or] lowering of the immune functions, appearance of inflammatory processes, lab results abnormalities in the fat and carbohydrate metabolism (glucose, cholesterol, insulin), affecting the myocardial functions (magnesium, phosphorus deficiency, elevated AST etc.) 8.”
Dr. Ford Vox expressed the opinion that “Dr. Skalny was, in the light of Ms Sharapova’s family history, justified in prescribing Mildronate both as a cardioprotective agent and as a preventative agent for diabetes.” and that the Russian scientific literature supporting Mildronate’s clinical use to compensate for an immune deficiency was strong.
The medications were verified against the WADA Prohibited List and were found in compliance.
In 2012, Sharapova discontinued her association with Dr. Skalny and retained a nutritionist Nick Harris instead.
She continued to self-medicate though with three substances: Magnerot, Riboxin and Mildronate.
Her nutritionist was not informed that she continued the above drugs.
Sharapova’s use of Mildronate was never disclosed either to WTA or WADA and the only documentation of her use was the correspondence between her and Dr. Skalny.
In 2015, WADA announced that usage of Meldonium would be monitored both in and outside competition.
Six percent of athletes tested positive for Meldonium in 2015 under the monitoring program.
Meldonium was added to the Prohibited Substances List for 2016 on 29 September 2015 by WADA and published on its website.
The ITF published the same on 7 December 2015 on its website.
Plastic wallet cards listing the prohibited drugs were handed over to Sven Groeneveld, Ms Sharapova’s coach by Neil Robinson of the WTA sometime in January 2016.
Two emails were mailed out by the WTA and the ITF respectively to players with references to the 2016 Tennis Anti-Doping Programme but there was no intimation of changes to the Prohibited List or specifically addition of Meldonium to the list.
24 samples taken from tennis players tested positive for Meldonium in 2015 (just over 1% of tennis players)—five of which were Ms. Sharapova’s.
However, results from WADA are reported to sports bodies only on an aggregate basis.This ensures confidentiality of the players’ results.
The ITF had no way of knowing that Meldonium was being used by Sharapova in 2015.
The tribunal found that the decision by Sharapova not to disclose her use of Meldonium on her doping control form was deliberate.
Max Eisenbud, Sharapova’s manager, claims to have no training as to how to distinguish a prohibited substance from a legally allowed drug and that he was encountering personal problems i.e. separation from his wife because of which he did not take his annual vacation which he usually utilized to check his wards’ adherence to the prohibited list and hence failed to review the 2016 list.
The tribunal found Eisenbud’s testimony ‘incredible’.
The triune also found that Sharapova’s continued use of Meldonium was “consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels”.
Did Sharapova intentionally break the rules?
Article 10.2.3 states:
“The term, therefore, requires that the Player or other Person engaged in conduct that he/she knew constituted an anti-doping rule violation or knew that there was a significant risk that the conduct might constitute or result in an Anti-Doping Rule Violation and manifestly disregarded that risk.”
The tribunal found her use of Mildronate unintentional as per the above Article.
Hence she was not handed a full ban of four years
Was she negligent?
Conscientiousness is the personal responsibility of a player and thus Sharapova’s professed indifference to checking the Prohibited List landed her squarely in the cross-hairs of the tribunal who found her guilty and handed her a ban of two years.
Sharapova sought to invoke estoppel on the basis that “the ITF (a) failed to notify her of the test results obtained in 2015 (b) failed to distribute the Prohibited List to her and (c) failed to publicise the amendments to the Prohibited List.”
The Tribunal found no basis for this claim.
The Tribunal also found no extreme or unique circumstances under which principles of proportionality could be invoked to reduce the sanction.
The only concession granted to Sharapova is the back-dating of her punishment to the date of her Australian Open failed drug test.
The tribunal concluded:
“The contravention of the anti-doping rules was not intentional as Ms Sharapova did not appreciate that Mildronate 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. 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. She is the sole author of her own misfortune.”
The decision of the tribunal can and will be appealed by the Russian in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Source: Text of tribunal verdict on ITF website.
Maria Yuryevna Sharapova is still hitting the headlines regularly despite not playing.
Why are we surprised?
Ever since she made her debut as a 17-year-old winning Wimbledon on her first attempt, the Russian diva is first among equals when embodying the glamorous side of her sport.
Her Sugarpova label expanded to incorporate not just candy but also eye candy— her own brand of apparel and cosmetics.
Sugarpova chocolate went on sale this May despite Sharapova’s provisional suspension from the sport following a failed meldonium test at the Australian Open this year.
A hearing into the her case was scheduled last Wednesday by the ITF.
The ruling probably hinges on the amount of the banned drug in her system at the time and how lenient or strict the governing body is about her continuance past the official ban date. WADA subsequently backtracked from tarring all barred athletes with the same brush when it was discovered that the drug could lie latent in the system for months after its use was discontinued.
Can Sharapova play again? Will she?
Speculation about her future has already begun in the media with commentators and administrators joining the media circus.
Former glamour puss Chris Evert chimed in.
“I think at 29 time is running out for Maria.Look, she started in her teens playing full schedules. I think that motivation and hunger—her hunger even more so has always motivated her to go out and play and that’s what we’ve admired in her so much is the intense hunger that she’s had.
And now that she’s getting a taste of real life. I’m seeing tweets she’s out and about, traveling and going to premieres, modeling and she’s everywhere. And I think as she gets a little taste of the good life who knows if she’s gonna comeback as hungry? I don’t know maybe she’ll have a little bit different attitude.
But at 29 years old and the players are getting better and better. And Maria, if you look at her results the past few years, she’s having more and more losses to players that are ranked below her. And I think she was starting to kind of get a little fragile anyway when this happened earlier this year. So I think it’s gonna be tough (to comeback).”
“If she comes back hungry and as mentally strong as she always has been then again nothing she can do will surprise me. But at the same time, I just wonder just about how much tennis she’s played in her career and the players getting better. I doubt whether she can get back to number two.”
Novak Djokovic felt otherwise:
“I obviously wish her all the best. I’ve known her for a long time. I feel for her with all that’s happening and I just hope she gets out of this stronger.”
But the most surprising comments have come from her own camp.
Shamil Tarpishchev, president of the Russian Tennis Federation, termed Sharapova’s future “very doubtful” and said that she was in a “bad situation.”
Tarpsichev later withdrew his remarks but doubts linger.
What does the future hold for Sharapova?
Can she return if she’s banned for a year or more?
It’s possible, theoretically.
Serena Williams still competes with the same vigour and determination that she displayed when she first burst on the scene as a 16-year-old.
But she and her sister Venus have enjoyed breaks from the game that other tennis stars would term a luxury.
Roger Federer—notwithstanding his withdrawal from this year’s French Open—continues to perform on the big stage and is ranked among the top three.
Federer, though, has fine-tuned his game over the years turning to Swede Stefan Edberg to help improve his serve-and-volley game. Yes, an old dog can learn new tricks and how. Federer may not have clinched a Grand Slam under his tutelage but he’s always the danger man should Murray, Djokovic or Nadal falter.
Williams is, of course, the supreme woman athlete of her generation. But Sharapova with five Slams has not been less consistent over the past few years.
Surely, she can make a fist of this setback and return stronger to the court.
After all, it is this generation of women players that has seen teenagers relegated to the side-lines as the likes of Kim Clijsters, Li Na, Francesca Schiavone proved that age is just a number.
Sharapova reworked her serve post a shoulder surgery. She belongs to the school of hard-hitting baseliners.
Can she add more weapons to her arsenal to overcome her younger opponents? Can she add guile and deception to the mix?
Mentally, she’s been right there in the top echelons.
Can she continue in the same vein on her comeback—if and when it happens?
Can Sharapova return?
Yes, she can.
Why not, you say?
Are you implying that of the 17℅ of Russian athletes tested positive for mildronate were all unaware of the performance-enhancing properties of the drug? Are you unaware that WADA is simply playing catch-up when it comes to listing the numerous synthetic steroids and chemicals that athletes—in this modern age—can and will consume just to get that extra yard of pace, that extra strength, that ounce of stamina, that edge over their competitors? Are fans to believe their PR machinery that they’re simply victims in this ‘arms race‘ of another kind?
Are they that gullible? Really?
Image via Wikipedia
The WTA Tour may have shut down shop for the year. But the International Tennis Federation show rolls on. And doesn’t Sania Mirza know it.
The 24-year-old won the $75,000 Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge knocking over Serbian Bojana Jovanovski in the final 4-6, 6-3, 6-0.
The little known Serb is her nation’s No. 3. Her favourite book: The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.