Scandal after scandal, fallen hero after fallen hero have created an atmosphere where many of the world’s top performers labour under a cloud of unsatisfied suspicion. Tragically, many competitors are imagined guilty of using performance enhancing drugs unless they pass a drug test. The admission by Russian tennis player Maria Sharapova, who has won five grand slam titles, that she tested positive for a banned substance at the Australian Open in January is just the latest confirmation of the power money can exert over people’s decision-making processes and whether they allow that process be influenced by ethics or not.
Ms Sharapova is the embodiment of a rags-to-riches story after she and her father fled penniless from Siberia to chase a dream. Her potential was realised and she has been the world’s top-earning female athlete for the last decade. She made €20m from endorsements in 2014, including an eight-year, €60m deal with Nike, a five-year contract with Evian, and deals with Porsche, Cole Haan and Tag Heuer. Her off-court earning capacity is so spectacular that her tennis is just a necessary adjunct to her marketing career.
That was Sharapova’s fairytale life but now the nightmare begins. Nike has suspended their relationship and Tag Heuer will not renew its contract. Despite the laughable, though not at all unlikely, assertion by the Russian Tennis Federation that Sharapova will represent her country at this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, her time at the top of the earnings list seems at an end. Should she compete at the August games she will be one of myriad competitors whose working relationship with chemists overshadows their athletic achievement. Many of those doubtful performers will be Sharapova’s compatriots.
A report released late last year by the World Anti-Doping Agency described how Russia’s secret service intimidated workers at a drug-testing lab to cover up athletes’ positive results and that they impersonated lab engineers during the Winter Olympics in Sochi. A Russian lab once destroyed more than 1,400 samples. The WADA found that athletes assumed false identities to avoid testing and some bribed the anti-doping authorities to ensure favourable results.
Russia is not alone in driving a win-at-all-costs culture. Kenya’s stellar reputation for middle and long distance running has been destroyed because of doping scandals. Despite initial suggestions that these countries might be banned from Rio it is more than likely they will participate. Both will send athletes and their national anthems will be demeaned as a drug cheat collects a tarnished medal. The reality is that these countries will be at Rio because no national body could muster the moral authority needed to impose a veto. No one authority was so unblemished that they could throw the first stone. Athletics and tennis, and most infamously, cycling are not alone.
Despite carrying out 468 urine and blood tests across 20 teams, the Rugby World Cup 2015 organisers failed to find even one positive test. This hardly seems credible, especially in a sport where an ever greater emphasis on unnatural physicality is changing the game in an unsustainable way.
Professional sport is a commodity, sports fans are its consumers and the competitors are the circus ponies whose ambitions — material and sporting — are now all too often hijacked to serve Mammon alone. It is as pointless to regret the passing of the Corinthian ideals of old as it is to mourn the end of legible handwriting but it is a tragedy that sport, once a vehicle for idealism and beauty, has been so diminished that it now requires the suspension of all belief and critical faculties. This is a real tragedy for everyone involved.