“She is the sole author of her own misfortune.”
This may sound like the last line of a tragic Victorian novel, but it’s actually how the ITF summed up its 33-page decision, handed down on Wednesday, to suspend Maria Sharapova for a stiffer-than-expected two years for a doping violation.
As with the summaries in similar cases involving Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki in 2013, the Sharapova decision makes for an entertainingly suspenseful read.
The core of the story goes like this:
In 2005, an 18-year-old Sharapova was suffering from various cold-related ailments and upper-abdomen pain. Her father, Yuri, took her to Dr. Anatoly Skalny in Moscow. Dr. Skalny prescribed “a detailed medicinal and nutritional regime which at the outset comprised about 18 medications and supplements” to boost her immune system. One of those medications was Mildronate—whose active ingredient is Meldonium—which he said should be taken before competing.
For six years, Sharapova followed his regimen. By the end of 2012, though, having “found the taking of lots of pills overwhelming,” she hired a nutritionist and left Dr. Skalny’s care. Sharapova continued to use three of the substances he recommended, one of which was Mildronate, without telling her nutritionist, her coach, her trainer, her physio, her doctor in California, or any WTA medical personnel.
“Nor was the use of Mildronate disclosed to the anti-doping authorities on any of the doping control forms which Ms. Sharapova signed in 2014 and 2015.” According to testimony, only Yuri and Sharapova’s agent, Max Eisenbud, knew that she took 500 mg of Mildronate on match days.
The tribunal, in its boldest statement, flatly contradicted Sharapova’s assertion that she took the drug for medical reasons.
“The manner in which [Meldonium] was taken,” it concluded, “its concealment from the anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team, and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took Mildronate for the purpose of enhancing her performance.”
At the end of 2014, the World Anti-Doping Authority added Meldonium/Mildronate to its Watch List of drugs that it suspected were being used as performance enhancers. A year later, WADA put it on its Prohibited List.
The ITF followed suit and added the substance to the Prohibited List that it published on its website on December 7, 2015. The ITF also issued a wallet card containing that list to the players, and sent an email two weeks later to Sharapova and others with a link to it. But no one from her team checked it, including Eisenbud, who, according to the summary, "did not know the ingredients of Mildronate, or their chemical properties."
A month later, Sharapova took 500 mg of Meldonium before each of her five matches at the Australian Open and tested positive.
The ITF charged that Sharapova, because "she knowingly and manifestly disregarded the risk of contravening the anti-doping rules," had "committed an intentional violation." (The suspension for that is four years.) The tribunal, though, found that she hadn't realized she was taking a banned substance in Melbourne.
But it did decide that she was negligent, and gave her the maximum two-year ban. At first this sounded overly harsh, but looking at the decision, and the chain of actions and circumstances that led to her positive test, it's hard to say that she doesn't bear a high degree of responsibility for it. I could see an 18-month suspension as fair.
Now: What are the chances that her suspension will be reduced when she appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport? The ITF has seen it happen before.
Three years ago, the CAS bumped Cilic’s ban down from nine months to four (the amount of time he had already served), and Troicki’s from 18 months to 12. Can Sharapova hope for a similar lifeline? The penalty for negligence in an ITF doping case ranges from one to two years, depending on the level of fault found. So there’s room for the CAS to make a reduction.
Sharapova's initial line of defense seemed to be that the ITF should have made it clearer to her that Mildronate was added to the Prohibited List. But her positive test results for the drug in 2015 had remained anonymous, in accordance with WADA privacy protections, and thus unknown to the ITF. As noted above, she also hadn't listed Mildronate on any of her doping-control forms. If she had, it's possible she would have been alerted that it was on the Watch List and then the Prohibited List.
In the end, the tribunal put the onus on Sharapova: "A player who is taking medication has a continuing duty to check properly whether that medication is permitted under the anti-doping rules." It's possible that the more player-friendly CAS will show more lenience in this regard.
The Cilic case, in which he unknowingly ingested a glucose tablet containing a banned substance, may prove instructive.
In its summary of that hearing, the CAS panel listed "the following mitigating factors" that were "in [Cilic's] favor." The third item in that list reads:
“He had already taken glucose over a long period of time without incident, which made him feel safe in taking it and less aware of the dangers involved.”
Later, the CAS states that once Cilic made his initial mistake, which was to misread an ingredient on the glucose package, “it is not reasonable to impose upon the Athlete the same expectation to take such steps as making online searches and considering the ITF wallet card.”
Could Sharapova’s lawyers make a similar argument work for her? She had been taking Mildronate "over a long period of time," and as with Cilic, she and her agent professed to be confused about Mildronate's ingredients. But there are differences in the cases. Cilic took a substance out of competition that was banned only in competition, and the CAS found that he “had shown himself to be careful in his conduct relating to doping risks in the past.”
That’s not how the ITF's panel described Sharapova. When asked why she hadn’t listed Mildronate among the substances she was taking, she said that writing everything down would have made the list very long. The panel countered that in most cases she declared only two substances on each form, “so that the list would not have been very long if she had added Mildronate.”
The tribunal found this justification “untenable,” and that “she must have known that taking a medication before each match, particularly one not prescribed by her doctor, was of considerable significance.”
Or, as the tribunal put it, she was the sole author of her own misfortune.
Recent history says that Sharapova’s suspension could be reduced, and, as I said above, cutting it from two years to 18 months would seem reasonable. But hers is also a special case. By handing out the maximum sentence for negligence, the ITF has taken this chance to send a message that every player, even one of the game's most bankable stars, must take its anti-doping policies, and their own responsibilities, seriously. That’s a message that the CAS, which represents all sports, should want to send, too.