Sponsors halt Maria Sharapova deals after failed drugs test

Maria Sharapova tells the world of her failed drugs test. Picture: Getty
Maria Sharapova tells the world of her failed drugs test. Picture: Getty
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The cost to Maria Sharapova of her failed drug test became clearer as three major sponsors distanced themselves from the tennis superstar.

The Russian dropped the bombshell at a press conference in Los Angeles on Monday and is now waiting to find out what sanction she will face.

Nike acted swiftly, suspending its contract with the five-time grand slam champion, while watchmaker Tag Heuer and luxury car brand Porsche followed suit.

A statement from sportswear giant Nike read: “We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova.

“We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues. We will continue to monitor the situation.”

Tag Heuer has severed ties altogether, with a statement reading: “Maria Sharapova was under contract with TAG Heuer until December 31st, 2015. We had been in talks to extend our collaboration.

“In view of the current situation, the Swiss watch brand has suspended negotiations, and has decided not to renew the contract with Ms Sharapova.”

Porsche signed Sharapova as its first global endorser in 2013, and said in a statement: “We are saddened by the recent news announced by Maria Sharapova.

“Until further details are released and we can analyse the situation, we have chosen to postpone planned activities.”

The Russian has been the highest-earning female athlete in the world for the last 11 years, with her off-court endorsements dwarfing her income from prize money. According to Forbes, the 28-year-old earned £21million in 2015.

Among her other sponsors, Evian ostensibly stuck by her, saying in a statement: “We were surprised by the announcement of Maria Sharapova during her press conference.

“Evian has been a partner of Maria Sharapova for many years and until now we have maintained a trustworthy professional relationship.

“Evian attaches great importance to health, to integrity and to transparence, and we will follow closely the development of the investigation.”

Cosmetics firm Avon declined to comment.

With the assembled media expecting a retirement announcement on Monday, Sharapova revealed she had tested positive for meldonium following her quarter-final defeat against Serena Williams at the Australian Open in January.

Meldonium, which Sharapova said she had legally taken for 10 years, was placed on the banned list by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) at the beginning of the year following ‘’evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance’’.

Sharapova claimed she had not read the updated list of banned substances sent to athletes in December and took ‘’full responsibility’’ for her actions.

She is one of a number of Russian athletes to have fallen foul of the new rules on meldonium, and revelations about the drug since her announcement have raised more questions than answers.

Use of the drug was monitored by WADA last year following suspicions. A study has reportedly shown it was present in the system of 17 per cent of Russians tested and 2.2 per cent of all athletes.

Nick Wojek, head of science and medicine at UK Anti-Doping, said: “It’s not a drug used in western Europe and America as a therapeutic drug, so you’d think that’s a very high percentage (2.2 per cent).

“I think it would infer, although you couldn’t categorically say one way or the other, that there would be some misuse within that number, hence why it’s gone onto the banned list.

“If you’re using a drug for a non-therapeutic reason then for me that’s an unethical use of that particular drug.”

Sharapova claimed she was prescribed meldonium, also known as mildronate, by her doctor in 2006 to deal with health issues such as an irregular heartbeat and a history of diabetes in her family.

Wojek said: “From what I’ve read so far, it’s normally used in Eastern Europe to treat stroke patients and patients with heart disease such as angina and heart failure.

“So, outside of that, you’re getting into a doctor prescribing something off label, which is possible if it’s in the best interests of the patient, but you’re getting into areas of using medication for what it hasn’t got the licence for.”

One of the other major questions arising is why Sharapova was prescribed a medicine that is not licensed in the United States, where she has been based since the age of seven.

The drug company that manufacturers it, meanwhile, has reportedly stated it should normally only be taken for between four and six weeks at a time.

Wojek said: “From the (patient information) leaflet it would suggest they did recommend it’s only for a six-week period to help ease the lack of blood flow - depending on what the medical condition was and the dosage being used.

“You’d have to look at the specifics but, generally speaking, if the information leaflet is saying six weeks, (to be prescribed it for 10 years) would be surprising.”

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) said Sharapova had been informed of the positive test on March 2 and she will be provisionally suspended from March 12.

Sharapova has waived the right to have her B sample tested and she and her team will instead hope everything she has done so far will limit the sanction she is given.

The next step is for an independent tribunal to be established to hear the case. A decision would be expected around two weeks after the hearing.

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