Perhaps the most disturbing aspect about the entire Maria Sharapova doping admission is the fact that I wasn’t too disturbed by it. For almost a decade, one of my sporting idols Lance Armstrong – celebrated cyclist and 7-time Tour De France winner – had made a fool of me and millions of his followers. His final admission on Oprah, after denying allegations for so long, made me feel cheated, angry, and consequently, numb. I had grown up reading his two autobiographies – about life before and after his cancer stint – and had been inspired by the man more than the athlete. I was inspired by what he stood for, by the fact that he proved human endurance to be an elevated state of mind. He was my hero. And the shock was so intense at the end of it all that my faith in human goodness, in truth and integrity, was shaken to its core.
It takes a lot to change one’s inner being, one’s optimism and perpetual embrace of hope and strength. Lance Armstrong changed me, and changed the way I looked at my heroes forever. He made sure that, down the line, if any one of them admitted to cheating on me again, I wouldn’t be too surprised. I’d simply smirk, sigh and blame it on the fast world. There’s nothing more dangerous than a burned, cynical mind.
So when Sharapova, the 17-year old sensation that had swept women’s tennis at a time when it needed more than just a pin-up face (read Anna Kournikova), stood on stage and addressed a press conference earlier this month, there was no lump in my throat. Yes, I had admired her, and was almost her fan at her highest highs and lowest injury lows – I had admired her single-minded focus and determination on court, her ability to never smile and play to the gallery despite having such a beautiful face, her tendency to come back out of nowhere and remind the world that she wasn’t just “another Russian teenager” back in 2004 in that Wimbledon final – I had admired all of this and more. I wasn’t a follower, but I liked the path she paved.
Admitting to doping is not the same as being a drug-cheat. Those lines will forever be blurred in Sharapova’s case – who first came across as a bumbling Shane Warne trying to justify a decade-long intake of a drug recently banned by WADA. Her “lost in email folders” excuse was only second to “my mother gave me the medicine” Warne classic, and surely, even her most ardent stalkers would admit that it sounded a bit flimsy. That fellow players later began coming out of the woodwork to remind the world how unpleasant, rude and ruthless Sharapova was in the dressing room only mythicized a legend burgeoning out of hand. One wrote about how everybody already knew that Sharapova was a cheat, and how she perhaps deserved this fate.
My question is: If they knew, why didn’t they tell? And what fate? The lady herself admitted to her “mistake” before anyone else did – a lot more than can be said about other modern-day athletes being caught red-handed and living in denial. Think baseball player Alex Rodriguez, sprinter Carl Lewis and so many European/Russian athletes – a region where, apparently, doping is more of a business than an illegal trade. It’s easy to come out later and trash-talk a fallen idol, but how many acted when it was relevant and important to act? If they genuinely thought she was doing something wrong, perhaps their voices would have forced WADA to ban the substance sooner than later.
Many will remember Martina Hingis’ ill-fated 2007 comeback, where, after impressing many with a few quarterfinal runs, she tested positive for Cocaine and got banned for two years. She is now the best doubles player in the world. Sharapova can take solace from that, but at 28, if she is banned for more than 2 years, there is no coming back – especially considering she wasn’t the quickest player of court, had a fragile body, and moved around gingerly, depending on strength more than speed or fitness.
However, that’s not to say Sharapova deserves no ban. She, like any other player, must serve her sentence. Being the highest paid woman athlete in the world has its pitfalls too. The first signs of guilt are always the sponsors – in her case Nike, Porsche and Tag Heuer – dropping out at the first signs of trouble. Then comes the stream of columns and articles about her legacy, her achievements and how valid they should be. Sharapova has won 5 Grand Slams – one of the few to have conquered every surface.
Many claim that she would have won at least 15 if not for her great rival Serena Williams, but that’s like saying Andy Roddick would be the best ever if not for Roger Federer. Theirs was always a one-sided rivalry. After that shock Wimbledon defeat in 2004 to 17-year Sharapova, Williams has reeled off countless straight-set wins over the despondent and wiser Russian. Nothing Sharapova has ever tried after that has worked. It’s almost like Williams let Sharapova win that first title to give her the limelight, and then prove to the world how great she herself is by dominating that great young hope for a decade. This must have clearly had a mental toll on Sharapova, who – in between her few titles here and there – seemed to have walk on the ledge of ethics after taking the blood-flow drug since 2006, soon after she realized there was no getting past Williams with a human body.
It’s almost ironical that Sharapova couldn’t defeat Williams even with the help of all the drugs in the universe. She never did. While that is a sign of Williams’ greatness, it is also a sign of Sharapova’s grey determination. She stopped at nothing, literally. And now, everything has stopped for her.