Maria Sharapova banned 2 years, will appeal

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LONDON — Maria Sharapova was suspended Wednesday for two years for failing a drug test, labeled “the sole author of her own misfortune” because she hid regular pre-match use of a newly banned substance from anti-doping authorities and members of her own entourage.

The 2012 Olympic silver medalist said she would appeal what she called “an unfairly harsh” punishment to the Court for Arbitration for Sport, a ban that would keep her out of the Rio Games in August. A reaction was posted to Sharapova’s Facebook account minutes after the two-year-ban announcement.

The ban, handed down by a three-person Tennis Anti-Doping Program tribunal appointed by the International Tennis Federation, is backdated to Jan. 26, when Sharapova last played. The full ruling is here.

She tested positive for meldonium that day after losing to Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals. The panel said various elements of Sharapova’s case “inevitably lead to the conclusion” that she took the substance “for the purpose of enhancing her performance.”

Sharapova, who faced up to a four-year suspension, loses all ranking points and prize money she earned in Melbourne.

More significantly, if her suspension withstands an appeal and runs through Jan. 25, 2018, the 29-year-old Russian will wind up missing eight Grand Slam tournaments during what might have been prime competitive years.

It certainly throws into doubt the on-court future of a former No. 1-ranked player and owner of five Grand Slam titles who is one of the most well-known and — thanks to a wide array of endorsements — highest-earning athletes in the world.

She is one of 10 women in tennis history with a career Grand Slam — at least one title from each of the sport’s four most important tournaments. Sharapova was the 2004 Wimbledon champion at age 17; No. 1 in the rankings at 18; U.S. Open champion at 19; Australian Open champion at 20. An operation to her right shoulder in 2008 took her off the tour for months, and her ranking dropped outside the top 100. But she worked her way back, and in 2012, won the French Open, then added a second title in Paris two years later.

Now comes a dark chapter to the story of someone who was 9 years old when her father moved her from Russia to Florida to pursue a tennis career.

Sharapova was provisionally suspended in early March; shortly afterward, she announced at a news conference in Los Angeles that she had failed a doping test for meldonium in January. She did not mention, as the panel’s 33-page ruling does, that she also failed an out-of-competition test for the same drug in February.

MORE: U.S. Olympic tennis player refuses to answer meldonium questions

Sharapova’s defense: She was not aware that the World Anti-Doping Agency barred athletes from using meldonium, also known as mildronate, as of Jan. 1. The panel’s ruling, in a nutshell: She should have been aware — and would have been, had she followed proper protocols.

Sharapova said she was first prescribed the Latvian-made drug, typically used for heart conditions, for medical reasons in 2006, part of a Russian doctor’s “medicinal and nutritional regime which at the outset comprised about 18 medications and supplements,” according to the panel’s findings.

By 2010, that doctor’s list of recommended substances grew to 30, the ruling says. She left his care in 2013.

In 2012, Sharapova reduced her pill intake, but continued with meldonium, the panel found.

Meldonium — not approved for use in the United States or European Union — increases blood flow, which improves exercise capacity by carrying more oxygen to the muscles.

“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 ruling says. “It may be that she genuinely believed that mildronate had some general beneficial effect on her health but the manner in which the medication was taken, its concealment from the 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.”

The panel found that only Sharapova’s manager, Max Eisenbud of IMG, and her father knew she was taking the drug then.

In what Wednesday’s report refers to as “the evident implausibility of his account,” Eisenbud said during the panel’s two-day hearing last month that he would check Sharapova’s list of medications against WADA’s list of prohibited substances during an annual Caribbean vacation after the season ended, but he did not take that same trip in 2015 and, therefore, did not do his usual cross-check.

“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 (program), a matter critical to the player’s professional career and her commercial success, is unbelievable,” the tribunal wrote.

Sharapova also did not note her use of mildronate on any of the seven doping control forms she turned in from Oct. 22, 2014, to Jan. 26, 2016, the panel found.

“She must have known that taking a medication before a match, particularly one not currently prescribed by a doctor, was of considerable significance,” the decision says. “This was a deliberate decision, not a mistake.”

Keeping her use of meldonium secret from her team and anti-doping authorities constituted “a very serious breach of her duty to comply with the rules,” the panel ruled.

Russian Tennis Federation president Shamil Tarpishchev told the TASS news agency that Ekaterina Makarova would take Sharapova’s spot on the country’s Summer Games roster. Makarova is ranked 36th, 10 spots below Sharapova this week.

MORE: Two past U.S. Olympic men’s tennis players expected to skip Rio

Teri McKeever fired by Cal as women’s swimming coach after investigation

Teri McKeever
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Teri McKeever, the first woman to serve as a U.S. Olympic swimming head coach, was fired by the University of California at Berkeley after an investigation into alleged verbal and emotional abuse of swimmers that she denied.

McKeever was put on paid administrative leave from her job as head women’s swimming coach in May after an Orange County Register report that 20 current or former Cal swimmers said McKeever verbally and emotionally bullied her swimmers.

Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton wrote in a letter to the Cal team and staff that a resulting independent law firm report detailed “verbally abusive conduct that is antithetical to our most important values.”

“I strongly believe this is in the best interests of our student-athletes, our swimming program and Cal Athletics as a whole,” Knowlton said of McKeever’s firing in a press release. “The report details numerous violations of university policies that prohibit race, national origin and disability discrimination.”

The Orange County Register first published what it says is the full independent report here.

“I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny any suggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation,” McKeever said in a statement Tuesday confirming her firing and expressing disappointment in how the investigation was conducted. “While I am disappointed in the way my CAL Career will conclude, I wish to thank and celebrate the many student-athletes and staff that made my time in Berkeley a true blessing and gift.”

McKeever’s lawyer wrote that McKeever “will be filing suit to expose the manner in which gender has affected not only the evaluation of her coaching but harmed and continues to harm both female and male athletes.”

McKeever led Cal women’s swimming and diving for nearly 30 years, winning four NCAA team titles and coaching Olympic champions including Missy FranklinNatalie Coughlin and Dana Vollmer.

In 2004, she became the first woman to be on a U.S. Olympic swim team coaching staff, as an assistant. In 2012, she became the first woman to be head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team. She was an assistant again for the Tokyo Games.

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Diana Taurasi returns to U.S. national basketball team

Diana Taurasi
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Diana Taurasi is set to return to the U.S. national basketball team next week for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics, signaling a possible bid for a record-breaking sixth Olympic appearance in 2024 at age 42.

Taurasi is on the 15-player roster for next week’s training camp in Minnesota announced Tuesday.

Brittney Griner is not on the list but is expected to return to competitive basketball later this year with her WNBA team, the Phoenix Mercury (also Taurasi’s longtime team, though she is currently a free agent), after being detained in Russia for 10 months in 2022.

Taurasi said as far back as the 2016 Rio Games that her Olympic career was likely over, but returned to the national team after Dawn Staley succeeded Geno Auriemma as head coach in 2017.

In Tokyo, Taurasi and longtime backcourt partner Sue Bird became the first basketball players to win five Olympic gold medals. Bird has since retired.

After beating Japan in the final, Taurasi said “see you in Paris,” smiling, as she left an NBC interview. That’s now looking less like a joke and more like a prediction.

Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve succeeded Staley as head coach last year. In early fall, she guided the U.S. to arguably the best FIBA World Cup performance ever, despite not having stalwarts Bird, Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles.

Taurasi was not in contention for the team after suffering a WNBA season-ending quad injury in the summer. Taurasi, who is 38-0 in Olympic games and started every game at the last four Olympics, wasn’t on a U.S. team for an Olympics or worlds for the first time since 2002.

Next year, Taurasi can become the oldest Olympic basketball player in history and the first to play in six Games, according to Olympedia.org. Spain’s Rudy Fernandez could also play in a sixth Olympics in 2024.

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