Why was Sharapova praised for her communication after failing the drug test?

The last month’s news of the Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova failing a drug test at the Australian open shocked the global sports audience. Although there are doubts about the veracity of the story that Sharapova had no knowledge that medicine meldonium had been banned since January 2016, she received compliments for her brave and honest appearance. In this topic, I will try to analyze her contrite declaration on using performance enhancing substances and compare it to some other famous athletes who also failed the drug test.


Maria Sharapova revealed at a press conference on March 7 2016 she had failed the drug test following her Australian Open’s match in January against Serena Williams. The five-time grand slam winner and 11 years-in-a-row world’s highest-paid female athlete was positive for meldonium, which became a banned substance under the World Anti-Doping Agency on 1 January 2016.

“I take great responsibility and professionalism in my job, and I made a huge mistake. I let my fans down. I let the sport down that I’ve been playing since the age of 4, that I love so deeply.” – Maria Sharapova during her press conference

“For the past 10 years I have been given a medicine called mildronate by my family doctor (…) On 1 January this became a prohibited substance which I did not know. I received an email on 22 December from WADA about the changes happening to the banned list and you can see prohibited items, and I didn’t click that link.” – Maria Sharapova 

Meldonium, also know as mildronate, is an ischemic heart drug which improves blood flow, and it was banned by WADA because of the evidence it aids oxygen uptake and endurance, and thus, enchances the athletes performance. The medicine is manufactured by a Latvian drug company. It is distributed only in Baltic countries and Russia and is not approved for sale in the United States.

Sharapova said that she was unaware that drug had been banned since January 1st 2016 and that she had been taking mildronate since 2006 to treat several health issues, including irregular EKG results as well as indications of diabetes.

Shortly after the confession, Maria’s high-profile sponsors Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche have suspended promotions with the player, but some other sponsors, like Evian, didn’t abandon her. „We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova. We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues. We will continue to monitor the situation.” – stated Nike in its official statement.

Even though Sharapova told she didn’t know that meldonium was not allowed from January 1st, there are some very suspicious facts about it. Firstly, there is evidence that ITF didn’t send one notification about meldonium being forbidden, as Sharapova said, but six of them. Secondly, it is very unusual that no one from the world’s most paid female athlete’s huge and well-paid staff didn’t read one of those notifications, or that they didn’t know that other athletes have been caught after testing positive for meldonium over past months. Third, according to the Latvian company manufacturing meldonium, the typical course of treatment for the drug varies from four to six week, not ten years, as Sharapova said.

“Leaving aside the fact you’re running a $30m annual business, which becomes eligible on you being able to play tennis, and you’re taking something that’s on a list that you’ve known about for four months? I’m sorry – that is a big mistake” – Dick Pound, WADA’s first president.




Million $ were Sharapova’s earnings in 2015

“We had been in talks to extend our collaboration. In view of the current situation, the brand has decided not to renew the contract with Sharapova.” – said Tag Heuer in its official statement


How did Sharapova communicate failing the drug test?


Despite all suspicion of her being truthful, Sharapova has communicated her situation quite well, because, history has shown, most of the athletes who found themselves in similar situation have tried to hide or deny their positive test results. She was “swift and professional with just enough tone-deafness to confirm there was a real person back there. She got out in front of the story and wrested control of the narrative rather than passively wait for the news to leak”, said Bryan Armen Graham, The Guardian’s columnist.

So, Sharapova acknowledged she was using meldonium, she admitted the guilt and made no excuses for failing to read the ITF statement. She took control of the narrative and managed to convince lots of people she was honest and was taking meldonium for health purposes. The head of the Women’s Tennis Association, Steve Simon, immediately praised her integrity and leadership skills, and support also came from Sharapova’s arch rival, Serena Williams, who said that Sharapova had used a lot of courage and heart.

“I am very saddened to hear this news about Maria. Maria is a leader, and I have always known her to be a woman of great integrity. Nevertheless, as Maria acknowledged, it is every player’s responsibility to know what they put in their body and to know if it is permissible.” – Steve Simon, chief executive for the WTA.


Defeats in 21 matches Sharapova has against Serena Williams

Due to her good communication performance, Sharapova got much better response from the public, journalists, and her colleagues than some other famous athletes who also failed a drug test. We will take a look at how Lance Armstrong, Marion Jones, and Diego Maradona handled their sticky situations.

Lance Armstrong was a seven-time Tour de France winner before his titles were stripped after he was found guilty of using doping. Armstrong lied in previous investigations saying he had never been doping. After the scandal had leaked, Armstrong admitted he was taking performance enhancing drugs throughout much of his career, but it was too late to repair his entirely destroyed image.

The second example is the American former world champion, track and field athlete who won five medals (three gold) at the Olympics in Sydney but was stripped of the titles after it was discovered she was using performance enhancing drugs.

Her two ex-husbands C.J. Hunter and Tim Montgomery had also been found guilty of using performance enhancing drugs. Through her career, Jones has consistently denied using doping, and she also lied to federal agents, but eventually, she had to admit and plead guilty to the US District Court, as the plea bargain helped her reduce a heavier sentence. She was eventually on a two-year ban from competition.

The third example is Diego Armando Maradona, one of the best footballers in the history of the sport. At the end of his international career, Maradona played for Argentina at the 1994 FIFA World Cup, he even scored a goal against Greece, before he was suspended after failing a drug test for ephedrine. He never admitted to deliberately using doping, and he accused the Argentinian version of the drink Rip Fuel. However, Maradona’s career is full of so many controversies that no one was shocked to hear he failed the drug test.


“If you consider my situation: a guy who comes back from arguably, you know, a death sentence [i.e., Armstrong’s 1996 cancer diagnosis and treatment], why would I then enter into a sport and dope myself up and risk my life again? That’s crazy. I would never do that. No. No way.” – Lance Armstrong, 2005


was Marion Jones’ time in the Womens 100 m at 2000 Olympics


Maria Sharapova failed a drug test after being positive for meldonium, but she will probably avoid the maximum of a four-year ban because she said she used the forbidden medicine unintentionally. Aside the possibility that she took the drug intentionally or deliberately, her reaction after the suspension was great from a communicators point of view, and most of the public had praised her courage, because she openly acknowledged and regreted using the drug.

Due to some very good PR, Sharapova succeeded in preserving her positive image and popularity in the eyes of public (and some sponsors). Unlike some other famous athletes who decisively rejected suspicions of doping throughout their career, and afterwards waited for the results of the doping test to leak instead of acknowledging their transgression.

Overtime’s team hopes that sportsmen and sportswomen reading this topic will never use any performance enhancing drugs and by doing so, will never have the need for Sharapova’s methods to preserve their image.

Niko Rukavina

Niko Rukavina

Overtime Sports Marketing

If you have any questions about sports marketing, feel free to contact me at niko@promoovertime.com

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