Maria Sharapova failed a drug test at the Australian Open. While the International Tennis Federation has yet to announce how it will punish Sharapova, we do know that Nike, Porsche, and TAG Heur have cut sponsorship ties with the two time French Open winner.
Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, which was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances on January 1 of this year. Sharapova has been taking meldonium for ten years now. Meldonium was prescribed to her by a family doctor to treat diabetes and low levels of magnesium.
“For the past ten years I have been given a medicine called mildronate by my family doctor,” Sharapova said in an apology. It’s important to note here that mildronate and meldonium are different names for the same substance. Sharapova appears to know the drug by the name mildronate, but the drug appears as meldonium on the WADA’s list of banned substances.
Public response to this situation appears to be coming in one of two forms. Here are two top comments from NPR’s coverage.
“They sent her a list of new drugs and their names. She claims she chose not to look at it. Obviously, her doctors, her coach, her managers, etc. and she herself CHOOSE to keep taking this medication… Cheating is cheating, Fraud.”
“She’s hot so she’ll be just fine.“
These two thoughts seem to permeate not just the public, but they also appear to echo the thoughts of her sponsors. The young, attractive tennis player was initially well suited to sell luxury products. Now Sharapova is a young, attractive fraud, and her name and face no longer come out on the winning side of marketing departments’ cost-benefit analyses. The message here seems clear: a woman’s body is a wonderful thing if it can sell a sports car. If it can’t, we don’t want anything to do with it.
Nigel Currie, in an interview with the AP, described Sharapova as a “one-woman marketing machine,” and Sharapova should really be commended for this. It’s increasingly rare for a tennis star to be a household name. What this situation makes clear, however, is that Sharapova’s sponsors were never interested in Sharapova’s powerful serve or aggressive baseline play—they were interested in her body. This failed drug test doesn’t take away her 2004 Wimbledon victory, nor her No. 7 overall ranking—it takes away public’s perceived value of her body.
Since Sharapova’s announcement, many have questioned the medical validity of her use of meldonium. The Guardian had this to say:
It is unclear how the drug would treat magnesium deficiency or a family history of diabetes.”
This is indicative of more of the same. If Meldonium is used to treat heart conditions, then we, for some reason, feel that we need to know just what Sharapova’s heart conditions are. If Sharapova has a family history of diabetes, the drug she treats this with better be the drug we approve of. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but it appears that what this young woman does with her body is subject to our scrutiny.
Former Wimbledon Champion Pat Cash said, “In my mind, for her to clear her name, she’s gonna have to really come out with the evidence. ‘Look, I had this test done, I had this done,’ did her and her doctor know this drug had any performance enhancing qualities.” It seems that for Cash, if Sharapova wishes to protect (or even regain) the validity of her storied tennis career, she must revoke her right to any kind of medical privacy.
Many are quick to point out that meldonium is not approved for human use in the United States. This is true, however, the normal course of treatment for meldonium lasts four to six weeks, two to three times a year. Given that the Russian tennis star is, in fact, from Russia, where meldonium is, in fact, a legal over the counter substance, it stands to reason that a legal use of this drug is perfectly plausible.
Former World Anti-Doping Agency president Dick Pound called Sharapova’s use of meldonium “reckless beyond description.” He went on to say, “Most of the drugs of choice for dopers were built for therapeutic reasons – like EPO and others. That was supposed to regenerate blood if you had cancer treatment or surgical intervention if you needed to increase blood supply…someone has said: ‘Hmm, more oxygen in the blood? Hmm, very interesting. Let’s see if we can use it for that purpose.” The 73 year old Pound, who once referred to China as a “land of savages”, is, as of this writing, not a doctor.
So we won’t see Maria Sharapova in any more Nike ads. We will, however, continue to see Kobe Bryant and Tiger Woods, and Nike will continue to do business for in-arguably unscrupulous National Football League. Hmm. Curious.