This may be a line from one of my favourite Hitchcock movies, North by Northwest, but there is nothing fictional about the subject I am approaching today. It’s very much real. And it is a sad reality sport and tennis are facing. Apart from the subjects that largely make up this blog, I like to keep my personal views out of it, although I have very strong beliefs and am very vocal in my private life when it comes to things like politics, sports or global issues. But there are some moments when I feel the need to address a controversial topic here, especially that this time it’s about tennis and ethics.
The general lines are these. You must know by now that at the beginning of this week Maria Sharapova held a press conference and admitted she was tested positive for the drug meldonium at the Australian Open. I haven’t been this shocked and disappointed since the Lance Armstrong story and Andre Agassi’s doping revealings in his autobiography. Sharapova says she has been taking the said drug, prescribed by her doctor, for about ten years to prevent health issues. The drug was only recently, at the beginning of the year, added to the list of banned substances under the World Anti-Doping Agency and she claims she unknowingly continued to take it, ignoring the email she had received back in December announcing the new regulations.
I would first like to say that I’ve never been a fan of Sharapova’s (in fact, I don’t think I have been really interested in women’s tennis since the days of Justine Henin). Although the Russian player is the only one who has managed to win all four majors (even two Roland Garros titles) in this era reigned by Serena Williams, when many other players seem to disappear into thin air after winning a grand slam title, I often spotted and resented her lack of fair play on the tennis court. Reportedly, she isn’t very friendly on tour, either. But I had never doubted her high standards as far as her career was concerned. I always thought her to be very meticulous, obsessive with details, hard working, perseverent (she had many comebacks after serious injuries), always raising the bar higher for herself, simply above board in everything.
I want to give everyone the benefit of a doubt and the fact is this drug was legal until January this year. Rules are rules and she seems to have played by them until now. But, let’s not kid ourselves, because I don’t think any of us was born yesterday. Athletes have always been quicker than authorities to pick up on the beneficial effects of various drugs before being banned. And believe me, I personally heard from reliable sources that entire sports teams (not tennis, in this case) have geneticists in their staff. You get the picture. Andy Murray was very straightforward in addressing sports ethics: “I think taking a prescription drug that you don’t necessarily need, but just because it’s legal, that’s wrong, clearly. That’s wrong. If you’re taking a prescription drug and you’re not using it for what that drug was meant for, then you don’t need it, so you’re just using it for the performance enhancing benefits that drug is giving you. And I don’t think that that’s right. I read that 55 athletes have failed tests for that substance since 1 January. You just don’t expect high level athletes at the top of many sports to have heart conditions.” You can’t have it any clearer spelled out for you.
That said, it’s not the fact that she has taken this drug almost her entire career that bothers me most, but the fact that she claims her continuing to take it after becoming illegal was an honest mistake. She simply did not open the email. How is that possible? What about the legion of (supposedly) competent agents and staff behind the Maria Sharapova brand? Her doctors follow her everywhere and this is simply something that slipped them? Something this big, with so many implications and repercussions? That’s plain bullshit, excuse my language. Or is it carelessness and negligence? At this level? The highest paid sportswoman on the planet, who has everything at stake? You are not allowed to make mistakes at this level. Period. It’s foul play, however you may look at it. And the issue that should be debated is not whether Sharapova should take full responsibility for it (why is this question even being raised?), but the greater harm that something like this does.
Former US tennis player Jennifer Capriati said: “I’m extremely angry and disappointed. I had to lose my career and never opted to cheat no matter what. I had to throw in the towel and suffer. I didn’t have the high priced team of doctors that found a way for me to cheat and get around the system and wait for science to catch up. The responses are exactly what I am talking about. Everything based on illusion and lie driven by the media for over 20 years. Beyond unfair.” True. But it is also true that it is the American athletes who probably have the best doctors in the world (Sharapova may be Russian, but she has been living and training in the US since she was seven), which makes me raise some serious questions. I am just saying that this might go much deeper, and not only in tennis.
What angries me beyond limits is that the game, a sport that I love, will suffer from this. So will the children who have Maria Sharapova as their model. And we need our children to love sport, for their wellbeing, but also for having real, worthy, healthy models to look up to. I used to think sport provided this kind of model through its champions.
photo: EPA FILE via The Telegraph