Head’s decision to extend its contract as racket sponsor of Maria Sharapova despite her failed drugs test has been labelled as “highly cynical” by former cyclist David Millar – who also called for sponsors to be hit with punishments when an athlete tests positive.
Sharapova has used Head equipment since 2011 and the company’s support is a significant boost after her press conference on Monday, where she announced she had tested positive for the banned drug eldonium, placed her relationship with other sponsors into doubt.
Head’s chairman and chief executive Johan Eliasch, defending the reported £1million deal, said in a statement: “The honesty and courage [Sharapova] displayed in announcing and acknowledging her mistake was admirable. Head is proud to stand behind Maria, now and into the future and we intend to extend her contract.
“Maria may have made a mistake, but she has earned the benefit of the doubt and we are extending it to her.”
But former Tour de France stage-winning cyclist Millar, himself a convicted drugs cheat, believes Head are sending out the wrong message.
“It definitely sends the wrong message, it’s a highly cynical move,” said the Scot at the Tackling Doping In Sport conference at London yesterday.
“I think that’s fairly irresponsible by Head and it’s sending the worst possible message there is.
“There is no such thing as bad publicity. There is nothing at stake for them. Because of that, the powers above that are profiting from it continue to get away from it. Sponsors are profiting from it, they wouldn’t sponsor Sharapova, or Lance Armstrong back in the day, if it wasn’t of economical interest to them.
“So they should pay an economical price if one of their athletes does make a mistake because you would be amazed at the difference that would make. They would become more pro-active, they would actually have to buy into the fact they are there to prevent and not just external bodies.”
Asked what punishments could be doled out, Millar – who was banned for two years in 2004 for taking performance-enhancing drug EPO – had a number of suggestions.
“It has to be scalable, the more money invested the more at stake…and their brands taken off all events for two months, that kind of thing.
“It would have to be a very strong contract, almost like a sponsors code and that’s the only way you’re going to change it.”