How do you solve a problem like Maria?

What is the story?

Maria Sharapova needs no introduction. A Wimbledon champion at 17, she has become one of world sport’s highest earning athletes of the past decade. But earlier this month, she hit the headlines for the wrong reasons. It has transpired that Sharapova had, since 2006, been taking cardiac-drug Meldonium (commonly used to treat angina (abnormal chest pressure) and reduce a patient’s heart attack risk). This seems innocent enough.

However, notable scientific journals revealed that the substance demonstrates a number of performance enhancing qualities (such as increased endurance, enhanced exercise recovery rates and stress protection). This prompted the World Anti-Doping Agency (‘‘WADA’’), after investigation and testing, to add the substance to its List of Prohibited Substances and Methods (the ‘‘List’’) from 1 January 2016. WADA informed athletes (including Sharapova) of the changes to the List. But the athlete continued to take the drug and compete professionally, and has now publicly admitted to failing a drugs test in the Australian Open in 2016.

Despite the International Tennis Federation (ITF) finding that Sharapova “unintentionally” broke WADA’s rules, she received a primary two-year ban from competitive tennis, along with a number of other secondary sanctions. Predictably, Sharapova has appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Did she have a defence?

One source quoted Sharapova as saying that she ‘‘did not know the substance was banned’’. But is this really possible today, in the age where ‘‘Google’’ is both a verb and a number and vast swathes of information is available at the click of a button? Anyone with internet access can find out (if you really want) what substances are on the List. WADA even operates a 24-hour hotline (for those who are especially keen).

We have also now been told that changes to the List were circulated to all athletes via email. On this basis, is it really anyone’s responsibility but your own if you fail to open an email containing important information that is sent to you? The sender can’t do much more to draw your attention to it.

Sharapova’s manager’s evidence (that he hadn’t taken his annual Caribbean holiday in 2016 when he would normally check the List) was comprehensively rejected by the ITF panel. Sharapova’s argument that she did not fully understand the requirement to disclose all medication taken on doping control forms (rather than only medication taken for the past 7 days) was also rejected. Also, the player’s assertion that WADA should have warned her that Meldonium had subsequently become a prohibited substance (because she failed a WADA drug test at Wimbledon in 2015 for Meldonium) was also rejected. Ultimately, it was her responsibility to check whether her continued use of certain medication was permitted, and her team’s job to explain to her what information the forms require if there was any doubt. Despite all excuses, the ITF found that Sharapova only had herself to blame.

In law, confession and admission of guilt are always mitigating factors with the potential to reduce any sentence. Claiming that the substance she was taking was referred to on the List under a different name (‘‘Mildronate’’) carried limited weight, but the fact that no-one in Sharapova’s team picked up on this did not help her case. Ignorance of the law cannot be a defence when you have the level of manpower and resources that Sharapova has at her disposal.

Who should take the fall?

Sharapova is PR savvy, and clearly thought that breaking the news herself (that she had tested positive for the recently banned substance) would be a way of managing the leak. But as one of world sport’s most marketable athletes (estimated to have earned US$20m from endorsement deals in 2015 alone), news of her error undoubtedly gave newspapers around the world fresh headlines (and they wasted no time in telling us all). Sharapova’s image will, therefore, suffer significantly.

Quite what Sharapova’s coaching team have been doing whilst this has been going on is unclear. Whilst her team perform a number of functions (from fitness to technique to public relations) a priority has to be the monitoring of the substances that she was putting in her body, which includes periodic reviews of the List. This should also have been high on the list of priorities given the doping scandals to have rocked world sport in recent years (for example, Lance Armstrong and Justin Gatlin together with a great number of Russia’s athletics team).

What next for Sharapova?

Almost overnight, the foundations of the players’ empire began to shake.

Sponsors (such as Nike, Porsche and Tag Heuer) wasted no time in announcing that they would be suspending their relationship with Sharapova. The speed at which sponsors moved to distance themselves speaks to something of a hyper-zealous brand management approach taken by international corporations (yet Nike still sponsor Justin Gatlin, so things maybe aren’t quite so cut and dry). Players will always risk losing a key sponsor (and significant income) if they act in a way that damages their own image or the image of their sport. Whether Sharapova’s guilty face would stop the author buying a pair of Nike shoes, or (if he could afford it) a Porsche is another matter. But sponsors cannot be seen to associate with banned or cheating athletes for risk of being seen to endorse or approve of such behaviour. Event organisers also take the same approach.

Sharapova has, to her credit, not tried to claim that something was slipped into her water bottle, or that she had kissed a third party who (unknown to her) had taken a banned substance (see Richard Gasquet case). However, her admission was not altogether clean. The ITF therefore had the freedom to impose anything from a fine to a lengthy ban, and with Sharapova’s current age (29), recent form (without a grand slam since 2014) and falling rankings, there is a chance her career may never fully recover.

So, first cycling, then athletics, now tennis….where next for sport?

World sport is, without question, facing a major challenge to its integrity (and rightly so). Competition is flawed if competitors cheat, or the outcome is biased. But doing so is viewed by other clean players as effectively sticking two fingers up at the sport and its values.

This is not the first time a major tennis star has been caught using a banned substance (see Andre Agassi in 1997 (crystal ‘meth’) and Richard Gasquet in 2009 (cocaine)). Whether or not it is the last time depends on how WADA acts in dealing with Sharapova, and whether or not athletes bother to pay attention to the List: no doubt the former will heavily influence the latter.

What can we learn from this?

For athletes, the message is simple – stay on the right side of WADA’s List, and employ a manager, trainer or physician who keeps up to date with any changes.

For event organisers, the key thing is to put distance between your event and any threats to sporting integrity. Tightening up on competitors by getting their consent to tighter doping controls (such as in competition entry forms) are steps in the right direction. Any costs of this will, however, have to be met by the event organiser.

For governing bodies, wider threats to sporting integrity brought by doping have to be dealt with from the bottom up. Support and awareness needs to be given to young athletes starting out on professional careers, and more should be done to eradicate agents, doctors or physios who seek to influence athletes toe the line.

For sponsors, brand protection is key. By ensuring all sponsorship or endorsement contracts have appropriate protections and exit rights (including refund rights), if your chosen athlete tests positive for a banned substance you can get out of the contract without being out of pocket.

For fans, the temptation is to lose faith in the integrity of sport. For every high profile failure, there are multiple fully compliant athletes. Once again, it is the actions of the minority tarnishing those of the majority. In this example one thing is certain: the problem is clearly not just with Maria.

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