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Maria Sharapova drug ban appeal won't restore damage to her reputation

By Paul Newman

The final sentence of the findings of the independent tribunal investigating Maria Sharapova's failed drugs test says it all. "She is the sole author of her own misfortune," the three-man panel conclude at the end of their 33-page report.

Whatever view you take of why Sharapova was taking the banned drug Meldonium - and the tribunal concluded that in the end she was using it to enhance her performance rather than for genuine medical reasons - the level of her incompetence in failing to realise that it was on a prohibited list is astonishing for someone who had otherwise been so professional in all areas of her life.

The five-time Grand Slam champion was handed a two-year ban and has decided to automatically appeal the verdict.

Sharapova convinced the tribunal that the original reason she started taking Meldonium - or more specifically the branded drug Mildronate - 10 years ago had indeed been to prevent recurring viral illnesses from which she had been suffering.

Meldonium was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list at the start of this year because of growing evidence that athletes were using it to enhance performance.

The tribunal reported that the drug, when taken shortly before exercise, had "a positive effect on energy metabolism and stamina".

Dr Anatoly Skalny, the Russian doctor who originally prescribed Sharapova's medication, which eventually comprised a mind-boggling total of 30 different medications and supplements, regularly consulted a WADA laboratory to check that everything was legal.

However, after Sharapova decided at the end of 2012 to stop following the doctor's regime, because she found the taking of so many pills "overwhelming", her steps to ensure that she was not ingesting anything on WADA's banned list were remarkable in their lack of diligence.

Sharapova's agent, Max Eisenbud, told the tribunal that, from 2013, he had taken responsibility for ensuring that she was not taking any banned substances.

Sharapova's father and, from 2013, Eisenbud were the only people in her entourage who knew she was taking the drug.

Although Eisenbud has done a great job managing Sharapova's business affairs - she has been the world's highest-earning sportswoman for more than a decade - he admitted to the tribunal that he did not have even a basic understanding of how WADA's prohibited list works.

The tribunal concluded: "The underlying factual puzzle in this case is how an elite player in the position of Ms Sharapova, with the assistance of a professional team including the very best sporting and medical advice obtainable, could ever have placed herself in the position of taking a Prohibited Substance, as is admitted, before each of the five matches she played at the Australian Open."

Rejecting Eisenbud's evidence, the tribunal said: "The idea that a professional manager, entrusted by IMG with the management of one of its leading global sporting stars, would so casually and ineptly have checked whether his player was complying with the anti-doping programme, a matter critical to the player's professional career and her commercial success, is unbelievable."

Both WADA and the International Tennis Federation had publicised the updating of the list of banned drugs - and the inclusion of Meldonium on it - from September of last year, but neither Sharapova nor Eisenbud made themselves aware of the changes.

Sharapova's legal team claimed that the changes had not been publicised sufficiently.

While Meldonium was not on WADA's banned list until the start of this year, the tribunal concluded that Sharapova's behaviour in recent years suggested she believed she had something to hide.Sharapova failed to disclose her use of Mildronate on any of the doping control forms which players have to complete when taking drugs tests.

The tribunal concluded that, whatever her position may have been in 2006, "there was in 2016 no diagnosis and no therapeutic advice supporting the continuing use of Mildronate. If she had believed that there was a continuing medical need to use Mildronate then she would have consulted a medical practitioner.

The manner of its use, on match days and when undertaking intensive training, is only consistent with an intention to boost her energy levels.

"The manner in which the medication was taken, its concealment from anti-doping authorities, her failure to disclose it even to her own team, and the lack of any medical justification must inevitably lead to the conclusion that she took Mildronate for the purpose of enhancing her performance," it added.

Sharapova's appeal to the Court for Arbitration for Sport, which has in recent years cut the drugs bans imposed on the tennis players Marin Cilic and Viktor Troicki, may yet have some success in reducing her two-year ban.

However, the damage to her reputation contained in this damning report will surely never be undone.

Belfast Telegraph

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