After thirty years as a sportswriter, it is easy to become jaded, to distrust much of what comes out of athletes’ and coaches’ mouths, to raise an eyebrow when an indignant athlete claims that a positive drug test surely must be a mistake, the result of tampering or an error in the lab.
That is why it was so refreshing to see tennis superstar Maria Sharapova — the world’s highest-paid female athlete, a woman who stands to lose big endorsement bucks — own up on Monday and take full responsibility for testing positive for a newly banned substance.
She didn’t run. She didn’t hide. She didn’t have her agent speak for her. She didn’t even ask officials to test her “B’’ sample. She did what she has always done in tough moments. She faced the microphone, just like she does after humbling losses.
Sharapova held a news conference at a Los Angeles hotel and freely admitted she has been taking Mildronate, a cardiac drug also known as meldonium, for 10 years for health reasons. She said she was prescribed the medicine by a family doctor when she was 16 because she was getting flu-like symptoms, had irregular EKGs and signs of diabetes, which runs in her family.
That drug was perfectly legal for the past decade and was not on the banned list until Jan. 1, 2016.
Sharapova conceded that she “made a huge mistake’’ by not reading carefully an email in December from the World Anti-Doping Agency that included a link to the new list of banned substances. Meldonium, a metabolic modulator that helps blood flow, had been added to the list because WADA found that some healthy athletes were using it in larger-than-normal doses to increase endurance.
Sharapova admits she unknowingly was ingesting a banned substance for the first 25 days of this year. That’s it. Plain and simple. She did it. She’s sorry. She wants a quick resolution.
“I have to take full responsibility for it,’’ said Sharapova, 28, a five-time Grand Slam champion. “It’s my body, and I’m responsible for what I put into it. … I take great responsibility and professionalism in my career every day. I made a huge mistake. I let my fans down. I let my sport down.
“I know that with this I face consequences, and I don’t want to end my career this way, and I really hope I’m given another chance to play this game.”
Sharapova tested positive for the drug on Jan. 26 at the Australian Open, after losing to rival Serena Williams in the quarterfinal. It was Sharapova’s 18th loss in a row to Williams, and her 19th loss in their 21 meetings. The last time the Russian beat the American was 2004. So, if the drug was meant to give her an edge, it certainly wasn’t working against Williams.
Sharapova is being provisionally suspended March 12, pending further investigation into the case. The penalty could range from a multiyear ban to a reduced sentence if it is determined she made an honest mistake.
The Miami Open on Key Biscayne begins March 22, and Sharapova, always a crowd favorite, might be forced to miss it if the case is not resolved by then.
Of course, only Sharapova and her closest associates know if she is telling the truth, but her integrity throughout her career, and her willingness to face this bombshell head-on should earn her the benefit of the doubt.