Maria Sharapova is a global sporting icon. She is an elite tennis player who, having achieved a world number-one ranking, is currently ranked at number seven. She has also used her athletic ability and commanding presence to become the highest-earning female athlete in the world. According to Forbes, the leading American business journal, her career earnings from tennis now exceed $25 million. Additionally, her endorsement contracts have taken her career earnings to a level most professional athletes -- be they male or female -- can only dream about.
Sharapova's international standing took a massive hit this week when she was found to have tested positive to meldonium. Meldonium is a drug used to treat angina and improve blood circulation, especially in the brain. In a sporting context, it is also believed to be an aid to recovery from muscle soreness and fatigue. Sharapova admitted that she had used this substance for a prolonged period, but she was also careful to note that it was a permissible substance up until January 2016, when it was placed on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned list.
True to form, the mass media labelled Sharapova a "drug cheat" and were rigidly unsympathetic to her claim that the drug was used for not only medicinal purposes, but also taken under the supervision of a physician. The media showed little interest in either the efficacy of the drug, or its health risks, and just assumed that meldonium was a potentially dangerous drug that gave Sharapova a comprehensively unfair advantage over her competitors.
These assumptions are both unfair and unsubstantiated.
The fact of the matter is, Sharapova's use of the drug was sensible, since it was permissible under the WADA rules. It was only deemed to be prohibited in January 2016. Thus, Sharapova's drug use was legitimate up until January 2016. And, neither was it clear just how much performance improvement accrued from its use.
A recent WADA press release confirmed that meldonium was added to the prohibited list, not because it was shown to deliver a significant improvement in performance, but rather because it was being used by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance. So, the idea that a substance should be put on the banned list because athletes think it might improve performance verges on the bizarre. WADA's decision to add meldonium to the prohibited list becomes even more draconian when evidence of its use can lead to a possible two-year suspension. Under the WADA rules, there is no space for negotiation, for placing substance use in a less-inflammatory context, or for addressing mitigating circumstances. And, what is more, there are hundreds of substances that can deliver a marginal improvement in performance that are not currently banned. Caffeine is a case in point.
Tennis has a lot more to lose from Sharapova's suspension than Sharapova does. She is the face of women's tennis, and even though she does not match the performance standards of Serena Williams, her marketing capability and brand value is superior to not only all the women players, but most of the men.
Although her drug-use admission has tarnished her reputation, and led to a fall in her product-endorsement portfolio, the hit is likely to be soft. In short, the Sharapova case says far more about the serious flaws in WADA's regulatory regime than it does about Sharapova's ethical laxity.
She did what thousands of athletes do throughout their professional careers. That is, you do what it takes to become a better player, be it improving a cross-court backhand, becoming stronger, or consuming exotic substances that are not on the banned list. There is nothing immoral or unfair in any of these actions. They are totally rational things to do in a setting where marginal gains mean the difference between winning and losing. Sharapova did little wrong. She merely failed to update the status of her medication. In this light, a two-year suspension is absurdly harsh, and makes the WADA regulations look hideously punitive.