Maria Sharapova's hasty explanation for her failed drug test burned her in the end

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) announced on Wednesday that Maria Sharapova has been suspended for two years for for taking a banned substance prior to the Australian Open.

In March, Maria Sharapova shocked the sporting world when she admitted to taking meldonium, the banned substance in question. In a hasty effort to get out in front and control the story, she took “full responsibility” for the failed test, but explained away the result on the basis that she was unaware that meldonium had been added to the list of banned substances. 

It turns out that Sharapova’s admission may have actually hurt her chances of avoiding the 2-year suspension.

In April, a month after Sharapova’s admission, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) made an announcement that suggested some athletes may be able to avoid suspensions for using meldonium. It turns out that there are questions over how long the substance will remain in the body, and some athletes claim they stopped taking the drug in January and still failed the test.

According to WADA, if the athletes can show that they “could not have known or suspected” that the drug would still be in their systems, then “WADA considers that there may be grounds for no fault or negligence on the part of the athlete.”

In the ITF’s decision, handed down on Tuesday, it is shown that Sharapova’s team argued their case based on four points. Her case can be summarized as follows:

  1. Sharapova did not know meldonium had been added to the list of banned substances.
  2. Sharapova had been taking meldonium for 10 years under the advice of a doctor and the ITF did not do enough to make the players aware of the changes to the list of banned substances.
  3. The ITF should have known that Sharapova had been taking meldonium based on previous tests and should have taken additional steps to specifically warn her of the changes to the list of banned substances.
  4. A ban longer than the one she has already served (since March) would be unfair to Sharapova because it would have a more adverse impact on a player of her stature and would cost her more money (in terms of endorsements) than a similar penalty given to a lesser player. A suspension this year would also keep Sharapova from competing in the Olympics.

Interestingly, none of their points are based on the idea that the substance was just still in her system, the get-out-of-jail-free card that WADA had given some players in April. The problem is that Sharapova had seemingly already admitted to taking meldonium since it became a banned substance, and didn’t have access to the loophole.

Sharapova said during her press conference in March:

I did fail the test and I take full responsibility for it. For 10 years this medicine was not on WADA’s banned list, and I had legally been taking the medicine for the past 10 years. But on January 1, the rules had changed and meldonium had become a prohibited substance, which I had not known.

During her case, Sharapova couldn’t argue that the substance was just still in her body from usage before January 1, as other athletes have argued. Rather, she was force to argue ignorance of the rules, that she did not read the emails with the updated list of banned substances.

The ITF seems to emphasise this point in their decision, repeating this line several times (or a variation of this line): “The player admits that she does bear some fault.”

In other words, the ITF is emphasising that Sharapova has already admitted she took the substance after it was banned and whether or not the substance was just lingering in her system is not up for debate and not part of the defence.

In March, Sharapova and her team tried to get out in front of the story by announcing the positive test themselves and offering a defence to the public. Because of that haste, Sharapova may have cost herself a chance to avoid a suspension.

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