THE DUBIOUS VERACITY OF SHARAPOVA’S CLAIMS (Analysing the International Tennis Federation v. Maria Sharapova decision)

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By Rishika Mendiratta (Founder and Managing Editor at KhelAdhikar)

“Sports does not build character, it reveals it.”- Heywood Broun

This is one of the many reasons that athletes are held in high regard for their performances. The display of solidarity, integrity, tolerance, team spirit, pain, determination, passion excellence, defeat and triumph, reveal the full circle of life in the duration of the game. Sports matches and contests are the type of bloodless revolution the world needs in the age of global-terrorism and extremist ideologies to unify the divergent factors towards the goal of human development. The celebration of Afganistan team’s cricket win in the turmoil hit nation even by insurgent forces is a testimony of the unifying factor of sports.

The essence of sports and its relation to human life has been beautifully encapsulated by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of Modern Olympics who said, ““The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.” One of the main reasons enumerated by Baron Pierre de Coubertin for the revival of Olympics was to ensure that sports fulfil the educational role incumbent upon them in the modern world.

To ensure the uprightness of the ethical lessons and positive values learned on the playing field, World Anti-Doping Agency was formed in the year, 1999 to put a check on the practice of doping which strips any sport of its worthwhile attributes. Martina Hingis, Lance Armstrong, Tyson Gay, Shane Warne, Yohan Blake, Ben Johnson, Floyd Landis have a common thread connecting them all, apart from their illustrious sporting record. All of them have been suspended because of doping violations. The latest to the list was the former world No. 1 athlete, Tennis star, Maria Sharapova. This news raised eyebrows of all the sports lovers, and once again questioned the integrity of the game in general. As her appeal to CAS against the two-year ban has been deferred till September 19 (earlier scheduled to take place on July 18), the prospects of her contesting in Rio Olympics have ended, only to the disappointment of her huge fan base.

Maria Sharapova has been a celebrated athlete since her initial days. It was she who said, “I want to be different. If everyone is wearing black I want to be wearing red.” It was this difference which made her the first Maria Sharapova. The Sharapova we loved, respected and adored. It was this difference which everyone was surprised to see from a petite fragile looking teenager when she defeated Serena at the age of 17. It was this difference which she aced in sports but faltered to live up to same expectations when it came to true sportsmanship.

The verdict of the ITF (International Tennis Federation) tribunal has given her a suspension of two years instead of four because of the absence of intention in her conduct to indulge in doping according to the standards mentioned in the WADA code. The decision might have given her a reduced suspension and maybe even in her appeal to CAS which will conduct a de novo hearing, she might get some relief, but the striking factor will be the shocking contentions which helped her skirt through the WADA code because of its technicalities and loopholes.

To begin with there are three sets of questions, the answers to which are baffling for any prudent person to believe.

Firstly, why did Sharapova go to Russia for the purpose of medication in 2005 when she had been staying in America since 1994? On a slightly unimportant note, Meldonium, (the prohibited substance in WADA(World Anti-Doping Decision) Code 2016 which she was consuming) is banned in America and EU but not in Russia. The substance, (according to the expert opinion of Doctor Rabin whose opinion has also been cited in the case) helps in generating energy from glucose rather than fat. Thus requiring less oxygen to produce equivalent energy in addition to cardioprotective and anti-ischaemic effects. She has cited this are the reason for consuming the medicine, “Mildronate”, which contains Meldonium. The decision of going to Russia and taking a cocktail of 18 medicines as prescribed by the doctor for treating mineral imbalances and frequently recurring bouts of illnesses is acceptable without any explanations on account of liberal considerations of heath.

But, the second set of questions impinge upon the unquestioned explanations of the first one.

Why did she make a unilateral decision to stop the Russian doctor, Mr. Skalny’s medicines all by herself in the year 2012?

Why did she, of her own volition, continue taking selected three medicines, including Meldonium prescribed by the earlier doctor?

Why during the span between 2012- 2016 had she never told any of the doctors she consulted or the medical staff about the consumption of meldonium?

The guileless explanation given by her was, “How could I have told them when the doctors never asked. (Medical education needs to do a serious thinking on teaching the science of prescience). Her reason for stopping the medicines because of discomfort in taking pills during matches doesn’t sound convincing coupled with her explanation of continuing other three medicines including meldonium which she felt was necessary to protect her heat from magnesium deficiency. These reasons may hold some water but the fact that they were taken without consulting a doctor or a nutritionist and not even Dr. Skalny make them untenable. Sharapova’s confession that her long-time manager, Mr. Eisenbud knew about the consumption of meldonium and she had informed Dr. Sergei Yasnitsky whom she consulted for general problems are the only supportive considerations in her otherwise unsatisfactory reasoning.

The third set of questions which put her case on a shakier footing is her non-disclosure of the prohibited substance Meldonium in the doping control form. The form makes it mandatory for the athlete to disclose any medication or substance which they had consumed in the past seven days from the date of the competition. She had not declared the presence of Meldonium in any of the doping control forms between the years 2014-2016. Her explanation that she construed the term “over the past 7 days” to mean “consumed on each day over the past week” is unacceptable considering her professional experience. Besides, in the Australian Open 2016 itself, she had consumed the substance Meldonium on 5 out of 7 days before the match, making her clarification all the more flawed.

As can been explained in the aforementioned paragraphs, her defence was unsustainable on various grounds. To add to that she tried to play the victim to this entire situation by passing the buck onto the ITF (International Tennis Federation) by claiming it was a fault on their part under section 3.1.3 of the WADA code as they did not take relevant measures to publicise the amendments, to the List of Prohibited substances for the year 2016 which for the first time included Meldonium in the year 2016.. As a matter of fact, ITF had been diligent enough to upload the list of modifications to the WADA list of prohibited substances in the month of December 2015 itself.  They had also sent an email to all the athletes containing a link to the anti-doping website. These methods indicate the fulfilment of ITF’s duty under article 3.1.3 of the WADA code leaving all her claims to fall into an abyss of obscurity.

The confounding part of the entire scenario is the verdict. When her defences weren’t concrete enough to exonerate her of her guilt in the consumption of the prohibited substance, how did she get a reduced sanction of two years? The answer lies in the inflexible application and technical construction of the provisions of the WADA code which defy all norms of reasonability. To elaborate, according to Article 10.1.2 of the WADA Code, the period of ineligibility of a player in case of consumption of a non-specified substance (Melodonium is a non-specified substance) is four years unless the player can show that the anti-doping violation was unintentional. Article 10.2.3 of the WADA code describes what constitutes an intentional anti-doping rule violation.

According to Article 10.2.3:

The term, therefore, requires that the Player or other Person engaged in conduct that he/she knew constituted an anti-doping rule violation or knew that there was a significant risk that the conduct might constitute or result in an Anti-Doping Rule Violation and manifestly disregarded that risk.”

Thus Article 10.2.3 requires the following two conditions to be specified which includes:

i) actual knowledge on the part of the player and,

ii) manifest disregard of the known risk.

The understanding of this runs on the premise of actual knowledge of the player and not on the basis of what she ought to have known or understood.  Thus, ITF accepted that since she did not know that Mildronate was on the WADA Prohibited List 2016, did not know that she was running a risk of committing an anti-doping violation. The absence of “gross negligence” standard within the ambit of this article is a major blow to the effectiveness of this article in its practical application.

Another concern is the credibility of flight of fancy narrations, accepted by anti-doping tribunals which provide easy escapades for the athletes to reduce their sanction periods thus leading to the downfall of the integrity of the very cause it is meant to fight for. As the matter has been appealed to CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) which will start a fresh hearing as is the scenario in all appeals to the said body, owing to which there is no certainty about the reduction in the ban period of Sharapova. The concern is that the findings of the ITF tribunal will have no merit via the de novo trial conducted by CAS which points towards the futility of tribunal hearings when their decisions are appealed.

This doping violation has certainly resulted in an unsought hiatus during the purple patch of Sharapova’s career. When she returned after a gap of 18 months during her shoulder injury in 2010, she said, “I love the sport too much to wake up and say I no longer want to do it. I missed it. It got to the point where I would look at books and pictures of some great moments I had on court just to remember what it felt like.” It is indisputable that she will come back to the game she loves with the same vigour. But till then the forced sabbatical with a productive stint at Harvard is certainly keeping her well occupied. As it is said, in sports sometimes you win, sometimes you learn, this certainly has been a learning curve for her and her fans with the hope that she returns and fights her heart out in every match she plays because Tennis certainly needs its own dose of Sugarpova back.


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