Written by Jen Offord

In The News

They’re with the banned

Big sponsors appear to be turning a blind eye to Maria Sharapova’s two-year ban from tennis. Seemingly because the other eye likes the way she looks, says Jen Offord.

Maria Sharapova
In news that will surprise no one, tennis ace Maria Sharapova was this week banned from competition for two years by the International Tennis Federation. The move comes following her admission that she had tested positive for use of a banned substance – Meldonium – while competing in the Australian Open in January this year.

As discussed in my sports column last week, the whole sorry episode has been something of a moral maze. The substance she was taking had not been banned by WADA until January, though Sharapova claimed she had been prescribed the drug – illegal in the United States, her country of residence – for “health reasons” for a number of years.

It’s hard to believe an elite tennis player would be taking a drug which is typically used to treat heart conditions – but coincidentally has performance-enhancing properties – on health grounds.

It’s probably easier to believe that Sharapova’s continued use of the drug beyond its addition to WADA’s banned substance list in January was as a result of an epic administrative clusterfuck: that her team somehow didn’t get the (three) memos about this.

Her attempt to distance herself from the performance-enhancing aspect of the pesky drug has ultimately landed her in it and I can also believe that her carefully orchestrated efforts have ensured she will now be something of a scapegoat in a sport overshadowed by rumours of juicing – and I’m not talking about carrot and kale, here.

Nonetheless, rules are rules and the ITF has to make an example of a woman who has, by her own admission back in March, broken them, innocently or otherwise. It’s funny then, that so many of her sponsors – some of which are big, serious, sporting names – should disagree.

“Prior to her partial fall from grace, Sharapova was the highest paid female athlete in the world for the past 11 years despite only having won five grand slams compared to Serena Williams’ 21.”

Porsche and TAG Heuer were quick to suspend activities with Sharapova in the wake of the ban, suspensions that will remain in place until a verdict is reached on her subsequent appeal to the Court of Arbitration to Sport, and Avon says it has no plans to extend any work beyond the limited engagement between the two set to expire imminently (though that had always been the case, they added). Nike, Evian and Head, however, have decided to stand by their woman.

Having initially suspended their contract with Sharapova in March, on Wednesday, Nike – somewhat curiously, since she has now been officially banned – issued a statement stating its intention to continue the working relationship, on the basis that Sharapova did not “intentionally” break the rules. On the same grounds, Evian, a brand that markets itself on its youthful cleanliness, has expressed an intention to continue to work with the fallen star.

Meanwhile racquet sponsors Head went as far as to laud banned Sharapova as a “role model and woman of integrity” at the time of her failed test and has criticised the process followed by WADA.

Of course this shouldn’t really come into it, but it’s worth reflecting on how aesthetically pleasing this woman happens to be, which seems to me to be the point John Inverdale clumsily articulated in his infamous comment about Marion Bartoli: that the business of sponsorship for sports women, and particularly tennis players, is far more related to looks than ability.

Prior to this, her partial fall from grace, Sharapova was the highest paid female athlete in the world for the past 11 years despite only having won five grand slams compared to Serena Williams’ 21. Since relations cooled between Sharapova and sponsors, she has this year made $20m in endorsements according to Forbes, the same amount as Williams this year – despite being banned for doping.

Photo: Nike.

Photo: Nike.

This should not be about trial by Twitter or burning Sharapova at the stake for her misdemeanours, be they intentional or (more likely) otherwise. But it should be about making the point that Sharapova is ultimately responsible for herself, for what she puts in her body – as she herself has said – and that an unfair advantage is still an unfair advantage even if you didn’t mean it. It’s about taking an appropriately tough stance against those known to have broken the rules.

Sponsorship is about role models: it’s about selling stuff so it’s about pedestalling the people who marketing bods think others should aspire to want to be like.

When you think about the fact that, according to research by Women in Sport, between September 2011 and December 2013, women’s sport received 0.4 per cent of reported UK sponsorship deals in sport, it’s important that those lucky few we decide to pedestal send a positive message.

It’s bad enough that society dictates the only benchmark for a woman’s aspirations should be how she looks rather than what she’s capable of. It seems this now goes further still: it doesn’t even matter if you do the one thing that as an athlete you’re told you can’t – as long as you look good.


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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen