Sharapova loses heart for tennis; how drugs can destroy a sport

David Dixon

An inspiring role model for women in sport, or just another Russian drug cheat? Ahh, the dilemma of drug-taking in sport.

The news that former World Number One tennis player, Maria Sharapova has this week announced her retirement from tennis has raised again the issue that just won’t go away.

The 32-year-old Russian, whose Wimbledon victory over Serena Williams in 2004 at the age of 17 propelled her to superstardom and riches, was later tarnished by conviction for using drugs to improve her performance.

Since returning from a 15-month drugs ban in 2017, the result of testing positive for heart drug meldonium at the 2016 Australian Open, Sharapova has struggled with injuries and poor form.

She had publicly-announced her ban in 2016 at a choreographed media event; wearing sombre black and nodding her head in seeming atonement for her sins; claiming that she was taking the drug, which is prescribed to increase blood flow for those with heart problems, on a magnesium deficiency and a history of diabetes in her family.

As someone wryly noted at the time, it is astounding the number of elite athletes performing at the highest levels with seemingly-serious underlying health issues requiring drug treatment.

Announcing her retirement in a fashion magazine, she rather shamelessly also tweeted an image of herself as a child with a racquet with the heart-warming message: “Tennis showed me the world—and it showed me what I was made of. It’s how I tested myself and how I measured my growth. And so in whatever I might choose for my next chapter, my next mountain, I’ll still be pushing. I’ll still be climbing. I’ll still be growing.”

So how do we treat people who have seemingly-achieved so much, but whose every success can be said to have been tainted by performance-enhancing drugs?

There was a school of thought in the late 1990s, that world athletic organisations should just throw in the towel and allow any athlete to use whatever drugs they wish.

Which is a bit like saying, “Australians love to speed, why all these road rules around schools and hospitals and such, just let everyone rip-away!”

The question of, why do athletes cheat, is often one posed by sports psychologists who should know better. They cheat, because they, and their coach, and their team doctor, want to win!

There was a series of television sports ads some years ago that featured second-place-getters in life; second man on the moon; silver medallist to Cassius Clay (Mohammed Ali) at the 1960 Olympics; second place in the Mr Universe title won by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1968.

The ads were gently ironic, featuring the hobbies and enjoyments of these largely-forgotten individuals, dancing, gardening, etc. But the message was clear; these people are losers, who remembers who came second?

If you put to most young sportspeople seeking the fame, glory, and excitement of major sport, “we can make you a winner now, but in 20 years’ time, your health will be shot,” most would undoubtedly say, “Where do I sign?”

That two of Australia’s top sporting teams, the Essendon Bombers in the AFL and the Cronulla Sharks in the NRL could have enlisted their teams to a supplements program run by a “sports scientist” like Stephen Dank, shows how strong the desire to win at all costs is.

Both teams were decimated by the subsequent scandal, But the coaches involved, James Hird from Essendon and Shane Flanagan at Cronulla, seemed surprised at all the fuss.

I recall talking to a woman whose young daughter was a champion cyclist and enrolled in the distance education course my son was completing one of his HSC subjects in. I mentioned the Lance Armstrong scandal, still current, and her response was, he was a lesser cheat than anybody else in the sport, and why wouldn’t you do it to win?  I looked at her innocently-naïve daughter standing next to her and had an overwhelming urge to say: “get out while you can!”

Sports stars themselves rarely if ever admit to cheating, and if they do, they invariably use the “everyone else is doing it, so why shouldn’t I?” Lance Armstrong School of competitive morality. Others give the “I’ve always been vocal in my opposition to illegal drugs in sport, why would I tarnish my own reputation by taking such a risk?” The answer of course, is, if you are a drug cheat, making loud noises about honesty in sport is the perfect cover if you ever get caught…

Australians don’t believe that we as sportspeople will ever intentionally cheat. That is why the public reaction to the admitted ball-tampering scandal in South Africa in 2018 was so swift and extreme. The players rather foolishly immediately put their hand up for the cheating with a “yeah, we did it, but no big deal…” confession.

My son, a competitive and passionate cricketer, gave-up playing and watching “Australia’s national game” after the scandal broke and has never gone back.

Better to go the Darren Lehmann defence, “I had no idea what was going on, I only sent the player out with the message to hide the sand-paper down his jocks because I thought it might coarsen his hands…”

Captain Steve Smith, vice-captain Dave Warner and Cameron Bancroft should, like many previous Australian cheats, have just thought up the most outlandish excuses and stuck to them.

In fact, remembering the most outrageous defences against cheating by Australian sportspeople, could be a sport in itself.

Like the Australian pentathlete who surprisingly found himself leading on the first day of the Seoul Olympics in 1988, until he was tested as having enough caffeine in his body to keep a forest of three-toed sloths on the run. “I drink a lot of coffee,” and “There’s this shadowy East German official who I saw near my water-bottle during the fencing,” were some of his more sane defences.

Or the legendary Australian swimmer caught with illegal pain-killers in her body whose coach said with straight-faced seriousness: “She had a headache the other day and I found this tablet in my sports bag, which I though was aspirin.”

Or how about cricket legend Shane Warne caught taking illegal diuretics. “Mum gave it to me so I would look good for a television interview,” he said in all seriousness, a claim which many Australians actually believed, until it was revealed that he had tested positive for the same substance on previous occasions.

One thing about cheating in sports, the administrators don’t want to know about it, until that is, it becomes such a problem that it threatens the sport itself. At this point the vast commercial interest that run modern professional sports can’t be seen to be doing absolutely nothing.

The Olympics have for years tried to have their cake and eat it too; thinking that catching the odd Belarussian weightlifter and Thai kick-boxer would show the sceptical public that they are, really, really, serious about cheating in sport.

But the BALCO scandal from the 2000 Sydney Olympics where three-times Gold medallist Marion Jones and a host of other American athletes were not only found to have taken drugs on a systematic and scientific scale — but to have been protected by their home athletic associations from exposure— was what the critics like to call a “watershed moment”.

Cheating destroys sports, but only if a great enough critical mass of athletes is found to have cheated, and admitted it. That’s why the BALCO scandal was such a death-kneel for the Olympics, which are now commercially a tenth of the event that they were 20–30 years ago.

Too late the complicit officials took action, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned Russia from all international sport for four years in December 2019 after it was found that data provided by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency had been manipulated by Russian authorities with a goal of protecting athletes involved in its state-sponsored doping scheme.

But the horse has bolted. Once a sporting event gets that sort of reputation, there can be no coming back. The world’s premiere road cycling event, the Tour de France has never regained its glamour, crowds, television audience, or international interest that it had in the halcyon days when Lance Armstrong was defying gravity cycling up the Alps at speeds that most cyclists couldn’t reach on the flats.

Cheating in sport is a morality play; those that cheat often win and get away with it, but when they don’t, they lose everything, and they take their sport with them.

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