Andy Murray last night demanded that the tennis authorities ban Maria Sharapova for failing a drugs test in January. He did not use the word “cheat” but the implication was as clear as day: she tested positive and now she must face the consequences.
“If you’re taking performance enhancing drugs and you fail a drugs test, you have to get suspended,” he said clearly and simply.
“I think taking a prescription drug that you don’t necessarily need, but just because it’s legal, that’s wrong, clearly. That’s wrong,” he said. “I don’t think that’s right. If you’re taking prescription drugs that you don’t actually need for what it’s giving you, then that’s wrong.
“If you’re taking a prescription drug and you’re not using it for what that drug was meant for, then you don’t need it, so you’re just using it for the performance enhancing benefits of that drug is giving you. And I don’t think that that’s right.”
On Monday, Sharapova stunned the world of tennis on the eve of the BNP Paribas Open, one of the biggest events on the tour outside the grand slams, by announcing that she had tested positive for meldonium.
The drug is banned in the United States, Sharapova’s country of residence, but is freely available on the internet and in certain European countries. Its medical use is for heart irregularities, helping blood flow and circulation in angina patients.
In her shock announcement, Sharapova said that she had been taking the drug, on medical advice, for the past ten years due to an irregular heart beat and because of a family history of diabetes. And, until the start of this year, the substance was perfectly legal.
But, at the end of last year, the World Anti Doping Agency informed all athletes that it was updating its proscribed list. This is not an uncommon occurrence and it is up to every athlete to check the new list to make sure that they are abiding by the new rules. Sharapova admits that she never read the e-mail.
“It’s almost kind of part of her job to know everything that’s going into her body,” Murray said, “and not just rely on what a doctor is saying or a physio is saying; that you check yourself to make sure, double check to make sure, that anything that’s going into your body is safe.”
Ignorance is not a defence in law nor in anti-doping investigations: Sharapova was informed of a change in the rules and she failed to take note of them. Murray, like every other tennis player, keeps an eye out for any communication from WADA and checks and checks again to make sure that he is working within the rules. That Sharapova failed to follow suit is just another strike against her.
“I read all of the stuff that’s relevant to me so if I have to take anti-inflammatories or if I have a rash on my leg or my skin, then I check to make sure myself,” he said. “But also the doctor at the LTA – I get him to check first. He’s obviously more knowledgeable than me about that stuff but it’s quite easy to check yourself.”
At worst, Sharapova faces a four-year ban if the anti-doping tribunal decides that she deliberately took the drug for performance enhancing purposes. But that suspension could be halved if the tribunal believes that there was no intention to cheat. Depending on mitigating circumstances that could be reduced even further. But she turns 29 next month and any ban could be career-threatening. So far, Sharapova’s sponsors have been distancing themselves from the world’s highest earning female athlete. Porsche and Nike dropped her, TAG Heuer is not renewing her contract until the tribunal’s decision is published but Head, the racket sponsor she shares with Murray, has stood by her. Issuing a statement in praise of her integrity, it announced it will renew her contract. That surprised and disappointed the Scot.
“I think it’s a strange stance given everything that’s happened the last few days.” Murray said. “That’s not something I believe should have happened. I think at this stage it’s important really to get hold of the facts and let things play out, like more information coming out before making a decision to extend the contract like that, in my view. I personally wouldn’t have responded like that.”
But after so long as a professional athlete, not much else has surprised Murray about the whole Sharapova affair. She is just one of a host of athletes across a range of sports who have been caught out by the change to meldonium’s status and with heavy sarcasm, Murray questioned the physical and medical condition of these men and women who had suddenly tested positive for the heart drug.
“I read that 55 athletes have failed tests for that substance since January 1st – you just don’t expect high level athletes at the top of many sports to have heart conditions!”