Sharapova: apology served with plenty of spin

Sweet and sour: Sharapova’s candy business may be damaged by the scandal.

Failing a drug test was a terrible blow. Sharapova’s fightback on Monday was a textbook operation from the spin doctor handbook. Despite that, many still feel she deserves sympathy.

When Maria Sharapova’s agent called a press conference on Monday, most expected the tennis player to announce an injury. At worst, retirement. Instead, she dropped a bombshell.

To a stunned room, Sharapova confessed that she failed a drug test in January. For ten years, she had been taking meldonium to treat various health issues. It had been legal until this year, when the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) banned it, due to evidence that it can enhance athletic performance. The agency notified Sharapova of this by email, but she claims that she ignored the email and was not aware of the change.

The fallout was immediate. Sharapova was suspended from tennis, pending investigation by the International Tennis Federation. She faces a ban of up to four years. Several sponsors, including Nike and Porsche, cut their ties with her. And, inevitably, a Twitter storm broke out.

The debate hinges on whether Sharapova is telling the truth. Close friends and colleagues have come out in her defence. That she owned up, and took full responsibility, is proof of her honesty. ‘She has always been above board,’ insisted her former coach Nick Bollettieri.

Others are sceptical. They refuse to believe that she (and her agents) would have ignored WADA’s email. In other words, the doping must have been intentional. To them, the press conference was an elaborate stunt, staged by a savvy PR team. Everything was calculated to elicit sympathy, from her faux-humble tone of voice down to her austere black dress.

As the sceptics point out, Sharapova has been skilled at controlling her media profile in the past. She has effectively turned herself into a brand: her sponsorships have made her the richest female athlete in the world for 11 years in a row. In 2012, she even launched a range of gummy sweets called Sugarpova.

Was this press conference her latest attempt to sugarcoat her image? Or was it a candid confession of an honest mistake? The jury is still out. In the meantime, she is asking for our sympathy. Should we give it?

Unforced error

Give her the benefit of the doubt, say some. We all make mistakes – especially mistakes as simple as ignoring an email. In this age of doping scandals, assuming everyone is guilty until proven innocent is tempting, but unjust. Yet that is what most of the media is doing. Pity Sharapova: she’s going to be given a rough ride.

Nonsense, comes the reply. Sharapova has profited hugely from tennis; it is only fair that she plays by its rules. There is no excuse for taking a banned substance, period. The fact that she owned up to it proves nothing: it could just be a smart PR move. Don’t assume she’s a liar – but don’t feel sorry for her either.

You Decide

  1. Is cheating always bad?
  2. Are anti-doping rules in sport too strict?

Activities

  1. Watch Sharapova’s press conference (see Become An Expert). Imagine you are a journalist at the conference, and come up with three questions for her.
  2. Write a 500-word newspaper column, expressing how you think the public should react to Sharapova’s press conference, and explaining your opinion.

Some People Say...

“We learn from failure, not from success.”

Bram Stoker

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t follow tennis. What do I care?
The issue of doping – and cheating in general – is not confined to tennis (see ‘Doping scandals’ under Word Watch). The way in which WADA, the tennis world and the public react to Sharapova’s mistake could set precedents for other sports. And even if you don’t care about any sport, this scandal raises big questions about the universal principles of honesty and fair play.
Why did the legal status of meldonium suddenly change?
WADA spent a year monitoring the drug, before finding ‘evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance’ and adding it to its prohibited list. Before the ban, the use of meldonium seemed to be on the rise: reportedly, it was widely taken at the European Games in Baku last summer.

Word Watch

An injury
Sharapova has been hampered by injury in the past, and has frequently taken time out to recover.
Meldonium
Few had heard of the substance before this week. This may be because it is only distributed in Russia and the Baltic states. Yet many athletes – especially Russian ones – have been found to use it.
Four years
The standard ban for deliberate doping. It could be reduced to two years if Sharapova is found to have been unaware of meldonium’s change in legal status. Leniency could further reduce the term, as it has for tennis players in the past.
PR team
The industry of public relations, or PR, exists to help individuals or companies keep a favourable public image. PR teams are widely employed by celebrities, politicians and the like.
Doping scandals
In 2012, cyclist Lance Armstrong was given a lifetime ban and stripped of almost all his titles after being found guilty of doping. More recently, WADA presented evidence that the Russian government encouraged its athletes to take drugs. As a result, Russian athletes may be banned from the Olympic Games this summer.