Maria Sharapova: Fallen Angel

Maria Sharapova (Photo: DAN ISTITENE/GETTY IMAGES)
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A drug test diminishes a tennis star. Was it an honest mistake? 

IN THE WORLD of sports, Maria Sharapova has an incredible story. From her parents leaving Russia, to arriving in the US as a child, financially broke and without any understanding of English, with her father taking a loan to fund Sharapova’s tennis training. She is now a five-time Grand Slam champion, the world’s highest-paid female athlete and one of the sport’s most famous faces. 

Now, with her admission of having tested positive for a banned drug, there is a cloud over her career. The current World No 7 who will turn 29 next month, has already been battling a string of injuries lately. She dropped out of the US Open last summer due to a leg injury and recently withdrew from another tournament because of a bad forearm. Provisionally suspended now till 12 March, she faces up to a four-year ban. Several of her sponsors like Nike, Porsche and TAG Heuer, have begun to distance themselves from her within a day of her admission. 

On 7 March, in a carefully-chosen setup—pale curtains as a backdrop; a sombre dark blouse and trouser suit; and an almost funereal face—she read out what appeared to be a carefully drafted sheet. She admitted that she had tested positive for meldonium, a drug she said she had been legally taking for a decade to treat various health problems, including regular sickness, early signs of diabetes and low magnesium. She spoke about how it was not a banned drug till recently, about how she knew it by another name (mildronate), and, she suggested, that at worst she was guilty of negligence— having not clicked on a link in an email sent by World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). She did not mention that meldonium has never been approved by the US FDA, the country she lives in; or the fact that news of a ban on it did not need to land in her email inbox, since the decision was announced back in September last year. Neither did she mention that WADA found ‘evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance’, given that the formulation serves to carry more oxygen to muscle tissue, and that this year alone there have been 55 positive tests for the drug. 

Meldonium, it turns out, is used to treat ischaemia, a lack of blood flow to parts of the body, particularly in cases of angina or heart failure. Only distributed in Baltic countries and Russia, it can improve exercise capacity in athletes. It was regularly used by the Soviet military in the 1980s, as some media reports have pointed out, to increase the stamina of its troops fighting in Afghanistan. 

Since the news broke out, Grindeks, the Latvian company that manufactures the drug, has said that it must only be used for a few weeks’ course. Sharapova claimed she had been using it for 10 years. The company told the Associated Press in an email statement, ‘Depending on the patient’s health condition, treatment course of meldonium preparations may vary from four to six weeks. Treatment course can be repeated twice or thrice a year.’ Sharapova’s lawyer, John J Haggerty, while declining to go into specifics, told the news agency that he wanted ‘to disabuse the concept that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case.’ 

It could be that Sharapova is only guilty of negligence. But it is incredibly odd that an athlete of her stature—someone who made $29.7 million last year, becoming the highest-paid female athlete for the 11th consecutive year, and, according to Forbes, with off-court career earnings at more than $200 million— who would presumably have a battery of professionals behind her, including doctors whose job it is take note of which drug is banned and which not, has been unaware of what pills she’s been popping.