(Dis)Advantage Sharapova

Is corruption in sports just part of the territory.


BANNED!,” screamed a recent newspaper headline detailing the stunning news of five-times grand slam champ and one of the world’s highest paid athletes Maria Sharapova testing positive for the banned drug meldonium at the Australian Open.

Predictably, gasps of disbelief and shockwaves swept the world with several sports stars flinging their hats into the ring of denunciation. UK tennis star Andy Murray demanded that she be banned from the game with immediate effect. He also chided Sharapova’s racquet manufacturer, Head, which (unlike sponsors Nike, Porsche and TAG Heuer, who instantly terminated Sharapova’s contract) announced that they would not only continue, but extended her contract for another five years.

Had Head, wondered many like Murray, lost their head or were they cleverly seeking guaranteed publicity through notoriety and headlines, consciously heading toward a daring love-all challenge in the face of shame & scandal?

It transpires that Sharapova had been taking the banned drug for 10 years to counter a magnesium deficiency and a family history of diabetes. The International Tennis Federation wanted her banned for four years, but finally settled for two, backdated from January 26, 2016 to January 25, 2018. Along the way, her 2016 Australian Open results have been annulled and she has also forfeited both the prize money and ranking points. The dazzling super star protested that the judgement was “unfairly harsh,” as she hadn’t realised that meldonium was on the Banned Substance list.

Earlier this year, tennis was colored by another sensational accusation, when Buzzfeed and the BBC announced that at least 16 players among the top 50 in the sport were involved in match-fixing. “Et-tu-Tennis?” seemed to be the collective cry of disillusioned fans, who have long believed that unlike cricket and football, tennis was a pristine clean sport.

Is nothing sacred? Is all sport susceptible to greed? Whatever happened to fair play and the noble spirit of the game in which hard-fought contests were a battle of skill and talent with the best team winning? Has this template been junked, labelled romantic, naïve, old-fashioned, and replaced by a mind set which decrees that since we don’t live in a perfect world, these goof-ups will occur and its best to go with the flow?

High profile, Bangalore-based sports commentator and the man powering the Pro-Kabaddi League, Charu Sharma confesses that these scandals and controversies are not exactly what the doctor ordered. But the big picture, he gently suggests, should not be lost. “Of course all these unfortunate incidents are very unsavory and disappointing, but what are they compared to the joy, thrill and excitement that they unfailingly continue to offer to zillions of their crazed fans? Take the IPL & FIFA … sure they have been tainted, but do you think that either the sponsors, TV channels or the fans are going to give up on them? Two rotten eggs in a basket doesn’t ruin the entire dozen, remember? The bottom line is: The sport is way bigger than both the sportsman and the controversy.”

Ex sprinter Ashwini Nachappa is not as charitable: “Sharapova was someone I truly considered a role model … and look what she’s gone and done? I am truly disillusioned and the star tennis player has plummeted in my eyes in terms of image and character.”

She laments the fact that, in all probabilities, this too will pass and Sharapova, like other tainted sports stars, could well return to her position as tennis’s Golden Girl: “The tragedy is that we live in corrupt and immoral times when heroes are constantly discovered doing un-heroic, even villainous things and frequently getting away with it. So, will the game of tennis, football or cricket, despite the proven irregularities and scandals, be affected? Never! They maybe blackballed for a while, but once the heat is off, they’ll quietly return and all will be well. Too much vested interest, I guess, of the commercial kind. Sad, but true.”

Brand Specialists, advertisers, marketers and pundits look through the prism of cold economics. They believe that if the controversy affects the sport, it is only temporarily. The love for the sport for the diehard fan is too overwhelming and public memory too short to affect it.

“Sport is very primal and for all genuine freakos’, it’s too heady and irresistible a passion to let go for any significant period. Disappointment with tainted heroes is there, but new heroes and feats forever beckon” admits one seasoned ad practitioner.

Adds another: “A cloud of suspicion may come over fans if defeat is seized from the jaws of certain victory and yes, if idols like (M.S.) Dhoni or (Virat) Kohli are involved in a controversy, it could be shattering …. But generally speaking, the sport is invincible. Stand by for the madness and hungama that will accompany the annual circus, IPL coming your way at your friendly neighborhood stadium, very soon!”

In the end, it depends on the side of the table you are on. If it is about morality, integrity, honesty, fair play, transparency and accountability to fans … that’s one thing. If it’s about being pragmatic, realistic and grounded, accepting both the follies of human nature and the seductive temptations offered by sports today to players, many of who are laser focused only on the dream at the end of the rainbow, that’s quite another. For the most part, the latter has trumped the former.

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