It may seem like a harsh penalty but regardless of what you think, Maria Sharapova needed to be banned. The former world number 1 was overnight handed a 2 year ban for a positive test to the banned drug meldonium during this year’s Australian Open. Sharapova has been on provisional suspension since March awaiting the tribunal decision.
Whilst Sharapova has taken full responsibility for the failed drug test, she is adamant that it was unintentional and claimed she had been taking the drug for medical purposes for the past decade. Regardless of this, athletes who fail drug tests should be penalised irrespective of the circumstances. Sharapova has claimed that whilst she did receive communication from The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) informing her of meldonium’s addition to the official banned list of substances, she was unaware that it was the same substance as a product called Mildronate, the product she had been prescribed by her doctor since 2006.
Whilst a ban for Sharapova is the right result, it is the extent of the ban that is arguably too extreme. She certainly isn’t alone amongst other tennis professionals who have tested positive for banned substances and received recent bans. However in some cases, players have received bans that are a fraction of Sharapova’s, which poses the question, is this 2 year ban fair?
Petr Korda tested positive to a banned steroid in 1998 just 6 months after his Australian Open triumph. Korda was eventually banned for just the 1 year from September 1999 and subsequently announced his retirement. His Australian Open title and points were never stripped.
Croatian Marin Cilic tested positive to a banned stimulant on 2013. Similar to the Sharapova case, the tribunal were satisfied that Cilic had no intention of enhancing his performance. However in contrast to Sharapova’s ban, Cilic only received a ban of 9 months. Upon appeal, this was reduced to 4 months and less than a year from the commencement date of his initial ban, Cilic claimed victory in the US Open, his maiden Grand Slam victory.
There have been a handful of doping bans handed down to players that have been as short as 2 months. Argentine duo Guillermo Canas and Juan Ignacio Chela received bans of just 2 and 3 months respectively. Conversely, Serbian Viktor Troicki was given an 18 month ban (reduced to 1 year on appeal) despite never testing positive to any banned substances. Troicki claimed he was unwell and unable to provide a blood sample in 2013 and was subsequently penalised.
Whilst both The ITF and WADA undoubtedly have challenging jobs and many different circumstances to consider in different cases, the tribunal decisions seem extremely inconsistent. According to Sharapova’s legal team, her ban of 2 years is the maximum penalty if the tribunal agrees that her breach was unintentional.
Whilst I believe a significant ban is warranted, 2 years is on the extreme end of the scale considering the unique circumstances of this case. One could argue that Sharapova was a touch careless in failing to note the addition of Mildronate to WADA’s banned list but I do agree with the tribunal’s conclusion that her breach was unintentional. However we have seen a number of softer penalties handed out to other players in recent doping cases. To me Sharapova appears as an easy target for ITF and consequently a big scalp for them given her extremely high profile and the level of success she has achieved. The ITF has been embroiled in drug and match-fixing controversies of late and understandably want to make an example of Sharapova given her positive test. The ITF have certainly done so with this decision.
Sharapova has announced that she will appeal her ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport citing the extremity of her suspension as her reasoning for the appeal.