Wimbledon, the third grand slam tennis event of the year, started today. But at least one recent former champion won’t be playing there this year. And perhaps not next year either. The International Tennis Federation has banned Maria Sharapova from competing on the professional tennis circuit for two years though she’s likely to succeed in getting this reduced. The ITF found her guilty of taking meldonium, a performance enhancing substance. She has taken it for many years and when she started taking it, it wasn’t on the banned list. That recently changed and neither she nor her agent nor her coaches kept up with this so it wasn’t declared on her doping control forms. She also hadn’t consulted a doctor about taking this drug in some time so her argument that it was for medical reasons weren’t considered plausible. The NY Times suggests her usage patterns on match days would indicate the drug was taken to give her an advantage.
I knew tennis wasn’t exempt from doping but so far, it had excluded the top players. When I heard this news about Maria in March, I was shocked and disappointed. By all accounts, Maria has had a stellar career. She’s been the world number 1. She’s a former Wimbledon champion and has won all 4 grand slam tennis events, only one of 10 women who have accomplished this rare feat. Worth about $125 million, she’s the highest paid female athlete in the world! Besides being a professional tennis player, she’s also a business woman and has a hugely popular candy company, aptly named Sugarpova. And she’s got classically beautiful looks as well.
So what would motivate someone who seems to have it “all” to seek this sort of an advantage in her sport? It’s hard to say. At the same time, it’s tempting to see a connection, even a tenuous one, between her Russian roots – though she’s spent most of her life living in the US – and the recent ban of all Russian athletes from competing in the Olympics in August due to a culture of systematic doping. I’d like to draw a line from one event to the other but that would be stretching it.(And if the Russian ban stands, she won’t be able to play for Russia in Rio.)
However, as I’ve thought about Maria’s situation, I think she offers us a window into ourselves. Her missteps and her getting caught provide a tangible reminder of how easy it is to lack contentment, to be restless, to want more, to seek more, and to be willing to bend the rules or compromise our ethics to get it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more out of life, seeking to live a full life, and going after it. In many respects, that’s an admirable trait. But when we cross the line, that thin line, that knowing line between pursuing something and grasping onto something–whatever it takes, whoever we have to hurt or push out of our path on our way to getting there, we have likely wandered into Sharapova territory.
And as we’ve seen with Maria, there are usually consequences. It may be just a matter of time before we’re exposed. These compromises often start with small, seemingly harmless things (i.e. a small lie that twists the truth, stealing a towel from a hotel room, etc). Yet when we get away with enough of those minor infractions, we become bolder and take bigger risks and make even more foolish mistakes. Eventually we might find ourselves doing and covering for things we never dreamed we’d be on board with. In those moments, we can learn from Maria. Once this became public, she called a press conference, owned up to her mistake, and so far has faced the consequences.
Over the next several weeks, as you hear news about Wimbledon, see a headline in the paper, or perhaps even watch a tennis match, let your mind remember why Sharapova’s not competing. Recall what she’s missing out on and what we’re missing on out by her not being there and be challenged to seek contentment in your own circumstances.