About a week ago, a story broke that famed tennis player Maria Sharapova tested positive for a banned substance called meldonium during the US Open. Like every athlete ever accused of doping, Sharapova denied the accusations of using the drug for performance enhancement. Instead, she claimed her doctor prescribed her meldonium in 2006 to deal with alleged health issues such as an irregular heartbeat and a family history of diabetes. On March 11, she posted a lengthy, appeal to fans on her Facebook page – essentially blaming the Tennis Anti-Doping Program for not clearly informing her of the rule change.
What makes Sharapova's claims seem particularly suspicious is that in the first ten weeks of 2016, nearly one hundred other athletes have tested positive for meldonium.
Meldonium, also known mildronate, was developed in the 1970s in Latvia as a heart medication. Athletes have also used the drug — mostly in Eastern Europe and Russia — because it is thought to boost the body's oxygen uptake and aid endurance. In fact, the head of the Latvian institute that developed the drug said in 2009 that Soviet troops in Afghanistan had used it to help their endurance.
Interestingly, the drug is not approved for sale in either the United States or the European Union. Yet, somehow Sharapova, a U.S. resident since 1994, was able to obtain meldonium on a regular basis. My question, is why as a long-time Florida resident would she not use the many medicines that are available in the United States to treat her alleged condition?
It seems that she went to great lengths to obtain and use this particular substance. When I add all of these facts together it looks pretty clear that Sharapova knowingly used meldonium over the past ten years to improve her performance.
Still, Sharapova has her supporters. In fact, the head of the World Tennis Organization, Steve Simon recently called the situation an "honest mistake."
It seems that Sharapova is being given the benefit of the doubt in a situation where many other athletes have been convicted in the court of public opinion and I think there are two glaringly unsavory reasons for this.
First, there is the money. Aside from Serena Williams, Sharapova is the biggest draw to women's tennis. In fact, despite being only ranked 7th in the world, with a mere five Grand Slam titles and one Olympic Silver – Sharapova out earns Williams in endorsement deals by 2 to 1. In contrast, Serena Williams is ranked 1st in the world. She is a 21-time Grand Slam singles champion, and holds four Olympic Gold medals. Yet, Sharapova's sponsorships by Porsche, Tag Heuer and Evian, have enabled her to become a household name and an international ambassador for professional tennis.
In an interview, Steve Simon admitted that Sharapova's positive drug test was harmful for women's tennis. "The last thing I want to see is any athlete have a positive drugs test. There is nothing good that can come from that. Not for the athlete, not for the sport, not for anybody involved," he said.
Secondly, Sharapova has a rare combination of good looks (that fit our cultures narrow definition of beauty), athleticism, and an easygoing demeanor that make her a media darling. It has enabled her to be held up as the golden child of women's tennis, and I would argue it has protected her despite pretty damning evidence that she cheated.
Still, I'm wondering why there is so much sympathy for Sharapova? Where is the public outcry or the fans demanding that she be penalized for not following the rules? So many other athletes have been stripped of their medals, and their lives ruined after testing positive for doping, yet it seems as if Sharapova is set to only get a slap on the wrist for her behavior. I can't help but wonder if Serena was in the same position if she – like Maria Sharapova — would be considered innocent, the victim of a confusing rule change or a physician confused by a silly new protocol.
Call me a cynic, but somehow I doubt it.