Sharapova's New Issue: Avoiding Stain of Russia's Huge Doping Scandal

By Erik Lief — May 12, 2016
Two performance-enhancing drug scandals, one involving tennis players and the other the Russian Olympic sports complex, are seemingly unconnected. That is, until you consider how both relate to Maria Sharapova, the tennis star who's currently serving a suspension for using the banned substance, meldonium, which helps oxygen uptake and endurance.
Maria Sharapova via Shutterstock Maria Sharapova via Shutterstock


When the week began, two sports stories emerged on different continents that simultaneously moved into the media spotlight. The first, in Rome, arrived innocently enough and right on schedule. The second, was nothing of the sort: a news bombshell dropped from national TV in New York, with results of a headline-grabbing investigation laced with damning testimony that implicated Russia's entire international sporting culture. At first glance, one might have thought that the start of the annual Italian Open tennis tournament, and the "60 Minutes" report on CBS News detailing Russia's "state-sponsored system of doping," which included new information about its cheating at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, were wholly unconnected. That might be, until you pondered, like I did, a possible common thread. Maria Sharapova. As it turns out, the international tennis star was not in Italy defending her 2015 title, as she's suspended from worldwide competition while awaiting the verdict for her illegal use of the substance mildronate, also known as meldonium, a "blood-flow-promoting drug banned because it helps oxygen uptake and endurance." It's a performance-enhancing drug. Sharapova, stunned and visibly contrite when the news broke in March, had an immediate explanation for taking meldonium, which she said she's been doing for a decade to address a magnesium deficiency. As ESPN reported, Sharapova "did not realize that mildronate and meldonium are the same drug and was not aware when rules changed Jan. 1 to make the drug illegal. She said that when the World Anti-Doping Agency sent an email about changes to the banned list in December, she did not click on the link to see that the substance had been added to the list." Sharapova's mistake might be easier to overlook as the innocent oversight she claims it was, had she alone been implicated, or was just one of a few tennis players who were caught. But that was not the case. As it turns out the 28-year old superstar and global celebrity was one of  "172 athletes [that] had tested positive for the drug since it was placed on the prohibited substance list," according to USA Today, citing WADA's announcement. "Many of those athletes," the newspaper continued, "are Russian or come from other Eastern European countries where meldonium, which was created in Latvia, is approved for use." That said, now consider the television segment from May 8, which presented what "60 Minutes" claimed was evidence of Russia's widespread drug cheating, which not only took place at the Sochi Games but dated back to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. The newsmagazine interviewed an insider Russian couple, who together forwarded sensitive emails and shot video implicating their nation's illegally systematic operation. As an elite runner slated for the 2012 Games, Yuliya Stepanov admitted to CBS that she willingly took anabolic steroids and the blood-booster EPO for five years, "all of it directed by her Russian coaches and medical staff." Vitaly Stepanov pushed his wife to "take an extraordinary risk and use her phone to secretly record her coach giving her steroids, her teammates detailing their drug use, and the team medical director who told her how to get back on the drug program." In another recording Yuliya taped Mariya Savinova, a 800-meter runner who won a gold medal in London, saying that she took performance-enhancing drugs. "My coach helps to cover up the tests," Savinova said. "There is no other way to do it. Everyone in Russia is on pharma.”

Maria Sharapova via Shutterstock Maria Sharapova via Shutterstock


So what we have are two significant cases of widespread drug cheating, both tied to Russian athletes. Now, are they directly connected? That's difficult to know and not for me to say. But the issue I am raising is that believing Sharapova -- the beautiful, glamorous, eminently-likable, Russian-born tennis star -- has instantly gotten that much harder to do. Bud Collins, with whom I worked closely years ago, shared with me his overall admiration of Sharapova, which only makes me wonder what the late, great tennis writer might think of her today.

In this day and age where professional athletes take performance enhancers, half the battle to survive a scandal is how believable and likable you are, and whether your story adds up, enough at least for the public not to excommunicate you into sports purgatory -- see Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Mark McGwire, to name just a few -- for all eternity. And the truth was that from a pharmacological standpoint, stemming from her own scandal doctors already had quite a hard time believing her story about why she was taking meldonium in the first place, and especially for 10 years. Now while Sharapova has left Russia long ago, moved to the United States and built a sizable and devoted American following, finding adoration for both her graceful, yet feisty, on-court game as well as elegant off-court style, she now has a much larger scandal to steer clear of. That's because, even by no fault of her own, this news threatens to immeasurably stain her reputation even more than it already has by her own doing. It's public perception, and that, unfortunately, can be unfair. If "60 Minutes" nailed its story this week, the entire Russian sports system comes off as wholeheartedly corrupt, comprised of an assortment of programmable, athletic actors literally forced to seize glory any way they possibly can. So in the shadow of that enveloping Russian melodrama, can Sharapova's claims of drug-taking innocence be believed?
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