Maria Sharapova’s confession shows there are no heroes left in sports

Published: March 10, 2016
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Although the drug was recently banned, there was probably an advance warning, so what are the odds that not just Sharapova but her entire team missed it?

Every time she stepped on court, countless fans stopped blinking. They weren’t only watching her game, Maria Sharapova was instead like a Russian ballerina mesmerising her audience, never mind the grunting. But one false step, even if unwittingly, and now she goes down in history books for the shot she should not have played.

After the recent match-fixing allegations in the sport, tennis has now got a body blow with Sharapova’s confession of failing a drug test. The Russian says she was taking the drug, meldonium, as a medicine for health purposes but researchers, for long, have been insisting this substance also boosts energy and endurance. Although the drug was recently banned, there was probably an advance warning, so what are the odds that not just Sharapova but her entire team missed the announcement?

Most players in the dock have never confessed to taking drugs knowingly, barring perhaps Lance Armstrong. In 2013, the seven-time Tour De France champion admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs through most of his career and went from a hero who battled cancer to a man who made a mockery of everyone’s prayers.

Lance Armstrong.
Photo: Reuters

Now, the sceptics within us wonder if the next sportsman that we hero-worship will be any cleaner. Remember the Armstrong Nike commercial,

“What am I on? I am on my bike busting my ass six hours a day,” the cyclist roared.

Clearly he was also on many other things apart from being on top of a system that kept testing him but always hit the wall. So, for Sharapova to come out openly may have also been the last resort, but we will never know about the ones who got away, like Andre Agassi and his post-retirement confessions.

Andre Agassi.
Photo: Reuters

The list is ever increasing and should ideally stop shocking us, but we remain eternal optimists.

Former badminton world number one, Lee Chong Wei, the not-very-athletic Malaysian who charmed us by beating younger, fitter players; cricketers like Shane Warne and Shoaib Akhtar have all been banned at some point during their careers. It makes us wonder then if doping and its punishments are just minor irritants in sports and that, as Sharapova says, she really will be back. Most of the others have.

Why do sporting icons, who stare at us from huge billboards or sell us anything from water to shoes, voluntarily fall from grace?

Or is this par for the course in modern day sport with most fines or punishments not really disrupting careers? The shadow of politics, big corporate money and the influence of successful players gives sports a distinctly unsporting feel. Even Novak Djokovic who admitted to being approached for fixing a match only spoke once the scandal broke, but why was he quiet for so many years? What goes on in the game, stays in the game!

Sporting careers are short and demanding. It is but expected that all athletes will make the most of their glory days, but nowadays their concept of maximising greatly varies from ours. It seems that many are willing to take the risk or go with the flow in a system where several players around them also cheat. The reckless amongst them simply believe they will never be caught.

The moment an athlete becomes successful sponsorships start swarming in. Maria Sharapova was the highest earning female athlete for the past many years but, as we can see now, it doesn’t take long for the cookie to crumble. Within hours of the news of her failing the test, corporate giants are withdrawing her from their advertisements. No one is oblivious to the murky side of sports, but only till it remains away from the public eye.

Maria Sharapova at press conference.
Photo: Screenshot

My first knowledge of sports being more than just a game came when Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, just three days after becoming the fastest man in the world. Six of the eight athletes who ran that final were implicated for doping at some stage during their careers. Not just men, even female athletes like Marion Jones, the charming sprinter, was stripped of three gold medals at the 2000 Olympics.

Athletics has been tarnished with this dubious reputation more than any other sport, but now it seems everyone else is playing catch up. Indian sportsmen have also not been able to escape the temptations for short term gains. Our weightlifters, athletes, wrestlers have all been under the needle of suspicion. In fact, a few years ago, Saina Nehwal spoke about how she knew many athletes and lifters who themselves told her that “they take it”. A 2013 report ranked India as high as third on the world sport doping list.

Money, power and fame – it can be an intoxicating brew. The stakes are so high that to compromise personal integrity is becoming easier than eating strawberries at Wimbledon. Sadly, today there may not be a place for those who achieve by sheer merit. Anyone who wins is no longer a champion, instead we are left wondering, did she, did she not.

This post originally appeared on Daily O.

Jyotsna Mohan

Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava

The author has worked with New Delhi Television (NDTV) for more than a decade and now writes for several news organisations on a variety of topics. She tweets as @jyotsnamohan (twitter.com/jyotsnamohan)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.