London – A week or so ago, the legal definition of British prisons was changed: they are no longer places of punishment. The new prison and courts bill, put forward by the justice secretary, Liz Truss, proposed that it was more important that they reform and rehabilitate offenders, and prepare them for a return to society. The news was not universally greeted with Nordic cool reasoning. The Sun called the legislation “alarming”, while Paul Nuttall, this week’s Ukip leader, said that it “beggars belief”. Stories of “holiday camp” inmates drinking, drugging, even frying steaks in their cells were rehashed.
But it makes you wonder – what should be the purpose of drugs bans in sport? Here, I find myself in an uncomfortable position: instinctively, I’m kind of with Nuttall. I want the doping cheats to be punished. Reforming and rehabilitating them, ach, less bothered about that. Individuals will always use illicit means to improve their performances, but if they are busted, they should know that real, stinging deprivations await them.
And ideally – let’s go full Nuttall now – I would like some contrition. Doping offences are not a victimless crime: most obviously, the legitimate winner or medallist who is presented with their reward years after the event to the sound of no hands clapping. And for us, the sports fans, it’s just really tedious to have to replay events you have watched and speculate on what part banned substances played. I had seven years of that with Lance Armstrong, and frankly now I’m cooked.
All of which brings us to the return on Wednesday of Maria Sharapova. Of course, Sharapova is not an Armstrong-level villain: she tested positive last year for meldonium, an over-the-counter cardiac supplement – which is thought to improve exercise capacity – that had recently been banned by the International Tennis Federation. We can’t even call her a “doper”: she was not trying to gain an unfair advantage, according to the court of arbitration for sport, but had simply made an administrative mistake, failing to read a bunch of emails that were sent to her.
So what’s the problem? Everyone skims their emails and we don’t have the excuse of being world-class tennis players. Sharapova blundered, she sat on the sidelines for 15 months and now she’s free to return. She’s been given a wildcard to the Porsche Grand Prix in Stuttgart, an offer that tournament is perfectly entitled to make. Roland Garros and Wimbledon will presumably extend a similar invitation in due course. Sharapova will be back on the world’s biggest courts, whatever anyone’s misgivings, and doubtless as formidable and noisy as ever.
This is only an issue if we hold on, somewhat indignantly, to the idea of punishing offenders. Certainly everything seems to be falling into place rather nicely for Sharapova right now. Stuttgart has delayed her first-round match against Roberta Vinci until Wednesday, the day her ban expires. She will have been further buoyed by the news this week that Serena Williams is pregnant and will miss the rest of the season. Sharapova, who turned 30 this week, hasn’t beaten Williams since the Russian was a teenager.
Sharapova is a ferocious competitor and would not have enjoyed missing a calendar year of grand slams, but objectively things could be much worse. Of her major sponsors, only Tag Heuer dropped her; Nike, Evian, Head and Porsche – who, by happy coincidence, bankroll the event in Stuttgart – all stuck with her. And during her ban, she’s had plenty of frying-steak-in-her-cell moments: she was on front rows at New York Fashion Week, in selfies with Elton John at a tennis event in Las Vegas, glammed up for the Vanity Fair Oscar Party.
She’s also, presumably, had plenty of time to work on her forthcoming autobiography. The title, appropriately enough: Unstoppable.
Where the Sharapova situation is trickier for me is the bit about being contrite. She’s not. She gives no indication of feeling that she has done anything wrong. In fact, her strongest criticism is saved for the ITF, which she believes should have taken her aside and – “just an official to an athlete” – told her about the positive doping test and worked out how to handle it. Instead, she feels, they chose to make an example of her.
There is a problem here. Tennis has a reputation as a clean sport: nearly all of the very few positive tests have been for recreational drug use. Martina Hingis had a small amount of cocaine in her system; so did Richard Gasquet, although he argued (successfully, bizarrely) that it entered his system after he had kissed a woman in a Miami nightclub and had his ban reduced. Sharapova, in fact, is the first real case regarding a name player and a potentially performance-enhancing substance.
The truth is that, should you be so inclined, tennis is an excellent sport to cheat at. It is, in Ukip parlance, legendarily “soft on crime”. With the exception of one journeyman player – Wayne Odesnik, an American now banned for 15 years – authorities have never caught a player using EPO, human growth hormone or synthetic testosterone. Last year, an ESPN survey of 31 professional tennis players found that almost a quarter personally knew a player who had used performance-enhancing drugs. Two-thirds believed that the sport did not do enough testing.
A World Anti-Doping Agency report in 2014 revealed that the ITF found a comparatively tiny number of miscreants in tennis: one in 985 drug tests was positive, versus one in 274 in track and field and one in 296 in pro cycling.
Sharapova has skilfully sidestepped this controversy, though to be fair she has worked really hard during her career to improve her movement. There have been a few grumbles from fellow players about the decision to offer her wildcards, rather than making her earn her ranking points again – “disrespectful” said Caroline Wozniacki – but they have been easy enough for tournament organisers to ignore. There’s a countdown to Sharapova’s return on her Twitter page, almost as if a gross injustice will soon be overturned. “I’m a gentle soul,” she has told us. “I’m not made of anger, hostility or resentment.”
I’m not made of anger, hostility or resentment either, but why, then, does it feel as if no lessons are being learned?
The Guardian Sport