Sharapova’s recent admission of guilt for using the banned substance Meldonium has sent shockwaves through the tennis world. Though the (hypothetical) doping is cause for concern itself, the bigger questions that it brings to light are much more troubling. First, let’s take a look at the allegations themselves. Sharapova was allegedly prescribed Meldonium in 2006, and has been on the drug ever since. It’s medical use is to treat heart problems, giving patients better blood circulation, improved quality of life, and exercise capacity. She originally took the drug because she was regularly falling ill. What is unclear, however, is why she has been taking it regularly ever since. The typical course of Meldonium lasts only 4-6 weeks, and yet she has been on the drug for a decade. Looking at it in a vacuum, the benefits of Meldonium, in increasing exercise capacity, simply scream performance enhancing drug, and it makes sense that it was added to the banned substance list this year. It has been banned in other sports for much longer, and it seems unlikely that Sharapova was unaware of its benefits outside normal prescriptions.
The next question is: how can a star of her caliber, in fact, the richest female athlete alive, have been allowed to take this drug for so long, and after it had been banned, without knowing that? She is followed around the world with an entourage of doctors and trainers, and yet not a single one of them, let alone Maria herself, took the time to look at the updated banned substance list. Seems unlikely, at best. Her fellow competitors have since come out to say that they are hyper-aware of the banned list, as even some everyday medications fall onto the list. Feigning ignorance is not the honesty that her fans, and tennis fans in general, deserve. We are wiser than that, and she should not be applauded for admitting guilt. Rather, we should question how she allowed this to happen.
The biggest question, and most important, is this: What does this high-profile looming suspension mean for tennis? Fresh off a betting scandal at the Australian Open, tennis was already in the spotlight for negative reasons. Now, in a sport that has been known for loose performance enhancing drug testing protocols, it is once again thrust into the spotlight as one of the highest profile players in the world has taken a historic fall from grace. Tennis has a decision to make with how they handle this. They need to make an example of Sharapova, and tighten up their testing protocols. It brings to light questions about whether or not PEDs have been allowed to run rampant in the sport for the last decade, and maybe longer. It casts shadows on arguably the greatest era of male tennis in the history of the game, despite the fact that there has not been a comparable situation in the men’s game. Sure, the substance that Sharapova tested positive for was only recently added to the list, but with known performance benefits and an admittedly weak testing system, we are now as unsure as ever as to whether or not PEDs have been a problem in tennis recently.
Alas, we will likely never know. The WTA and ATP Tours will keep their conversations behind closed doors, and likely give vague answers to the media. Sharapova will likely get a punishment much weaker than fits the crime, because she is their golden child, and a major part of their marketing machine. All we can do is hope that they don’t mishandle it completely, and hope that the health of the game, and it’s sterling image in the last 15 years, doesn’t take too big a hit because of it. Tennis’ governing bodies have a choice to make, and hopefully it is the right one.