See, Maria Sharapova is not that different from you. (Well, except maybe for a few things such as her over $285 million in tennis earnings.) The tennis star recently said that she didn’t know what meldonium was until testing positive in January 2016 at the Australian Open for the recently banned substance. As the 29-year-old (soon to be 30 this month) five-time Grand Slam champion told the Times of London, “I had to Google it to find out. To me, it was Mildronate.” Mildronate is the trade name for meldonium, which the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) placed on its banned substance list on September 16, 2015, effective January 1 , 2016, after finding that the drug could potentially increase exercise capacity and tolerance. Since mildronate, meldonium or whatever you want to call it isn’t commonly used in the U.S., you probably had to Google it as well.
This month Sharapova will be back on the professional women’s tennis tour…nine months sooner than initially expected. Originally suspended by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) for two years, the tennis star appealed the ruling, essentially arguing, “WADA you mean that mildronate is on the banned substance list?” Sharapova’s legal team argued that she had used meldonium for magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes for nearly a decade and was unaware that the drug had recently been banned. Therefore, as her team asserted, the fault, if any, lay in her team for not reading the latest updated banned substance list. A court of arbitration listened and reduced her suspension to 15 months because it did not find enough evidence that Sharapova was an “intentional doper.”
Sharapova, who’s also known for her grunting on the tennis court, is not exactly returning to the women’s professional tennis tour quietly. She’s returning swinging. She also asked the Times, “Why didn’t someone come up to me and have a private conversation, just an official to an athlete, which would have taken care of the confidentiality problem they talked about later?” Now Sharapova is contending that the ITF should have warned her that WADA would be moving mildronate to the banned list. The ITF countered: WADA you mean, how could they know what drugs Sharapova was taking, as Sky News reports. Meanwhile, players such as Caroline Wozniacki, Angelique Kerber and Andy Murray have questioned why Sharapova is getting special wild card entries into tournaments instead of having to play her way back into getting tournament invitations. Oh, and Sharapova’s dating attempts didn’t go well during her hiatus, because she feels that men are intimidated by her, which is what she told Akshay Kohli for Tennis World.) Ah, Maria is back.
What to make of all this? Well, you can be sure that people in the future will use the “didn’t know” or “didn’t hear” defense when found taking a banned substance, whether the argument is legitimate or not. To guard against such defenses, governing bodies may need to broadcast any list changes more unequivocally on multiple channels (e.g., “doughnuts now #bannedsubstance by @WADA #frownyface”). They may need to make clearer some common alternative names for a banned substance (within reason, of course, since drugs may have many, many different pet names).