Maria Sharapova, 29-year-old Russian tennis phenomenon, was banned from participating in the sport by the International Tennis Federation for a period of 2 years.
She tested positive for the drug meldonium, also known under the name mildronite, at the Australian Open in January 2016. Sharapova also tested positive for the same drug during a competition in Moscow in February, 2016.
The Moscow competition wasn’t affiliated with the ITF, as was the Australian Open.
The World Anti-Doping Agency has prohibited athletes from using meldonium as of January 1, 2016.
Meldonium is primarily used to treat patients with heart disease, as the drug expands blood vessels and increases blood flow. These medicinal benefits can be of great use to professional athletes looking for an extra benefit in competition.
Hence then recent ban of medonium by the ITF, which now views the drug as a performing enhancing drug.
Sharapova admits to using the banned drug unintentionally.
Her 2-year ban is based on non-intentional use of a banned substance. Intentional use of a banned substance carries a sports participation ban of 4 years.
A neutral, independent, 3-person, ITF sanctioned panel determined that Sharapova took meldonium without knowing that it was currently banned. The panel also decided that Sharapova could not be exempted from punishment simply for pleading ignorance of the ban.
Sharapova will be eligible for play again on January 25, 2018.
Sharapova is one of the biggest stars in tennis today, if not the biggest, depending upon whom you ask.
She was the highest paid female athlete on planet Earth for 11-years in a row. (Serena Williams claimed that honor for 2016.)
In her career lifetime, Sharapova has made an estimated $300 million as a professional tennis player.
The fallout from the 2-year ban endangers a multitude of sponsorship deals for Sharapova, who stands to lose $50 million over the next several years if the 2-year ban stands. One-by-one, her commercial sponsors may bail over the bad press.
Currently, her major sponsorship deals with Nike and Porsche are teetering. Those deals have been only suspended for the time being. Most of her major sponsors are sticking by her or employing a wait-and-see approach.
Sharapova has not played professionally since January 2016. (The Moscow competition was a non-ITF event.)
The non-intentional basis of the 2-year ban may help alleviate the bad P.R. aspect of the case for her sponsorship deals and with her large fanbase.
An expedited decision based on her recent appeal should be reached by the ITF panel by July 18th, 2016.
If the decision is reversed, however unlikely, Sharapova could then look forward to competing in the Rio Summer Olympics.
A. A. Francis