Maria Sharapova's 2-year tennis ban for doping: How bad is accidental cheating?

Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova has received a two-year ban for doping, which she has promised to appeal because she believes that her lack of knowledge about the doping should carry more weight. 

Vincent Thian/AP
Winner Serena Williams of the US (l.) and runner-up Maria Sharapova of Russia (r.) wait for the trophy presentation after the women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championship on Jan. 31, 2015. Ms. Sharapova has been suspended for two years by the International Tennis Federation for testing positive for meldonium at the Australian Open.

Russian tennis star and five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova received a two-year ban from the International Tennis Federation over doping on Wednesday.

With the string of doping scandals, international sports organizations have been under pressure to show they are serious about not only regulating but also enforcing rules on performance-enhancing drugs. The ITF's investigative tribunal has agreed with Ms. Sharapova that her illegal use of the banned drug meldonium was unintentional, ESPN reported. Their decision to ban her from the sport for two years – including taking her title and winnings from the January Australian Open – sends a message about their view of athlete doping.

They don't care that she wasn't trying to cheat.

"This was a deliberate decision, not a mistake," the ITF said. "Taken together with the evidence that over a period of three years she did not disclose her use of mildronate to her coach, trainer, physio, nutritionist or any medical adviser she consulted through the WTA, the facts are only consistent with a deliberate decision to keep secret from the anti-doping authorities the fact that she was using mildronate in competition."

Sharapova has already promised to appeal the lengthy ban, which she decried as unfair because even the international sports body's investigating tribunal agreed that her error was accidental, the Associated Press reported. 

"While the tribunal concluded correctly that I did not intentionally violate the anti-doping rules, I cannot accept an unfairly harsh two-year suspension," Sharapova said in a statement. "The tribunal, whose members were selected by the ITF, agreed that I did not do anything intentionally wrong, yet they seek to keep me from playing tennis for two years."

The decision shows an attempt by the ITF on the one hand to shift the responsibility for doping enforcement from the international tennis organization to the athlete. Sharapova, on the other hand, insists that since the doping was accidental, her punishment should be gentler.

"The ITF tribunal unanimously concluded that what I did was not intentional," Sharapova said in a statement. "The ITF asked the tribunal to suspend me for four years – the required suspension for an intentional violation – and the tribunal rejected the ITF's position."

Sharapova insists the ITF was too passive in its methods for informing athletes of the – in this case – pivotal changes to its doping policies. Sharapova explained in a March 7 press conference when she announced the doping problem that she was informed of changes to the drug policy via a single email in December, and the list itself was accessed via an email link, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported previously.

The issue was further complicated because meldonium, the drug she had been taking legally for 10 years, is commonly taken in eastern Europe and known instead as mildronate.

The appeal will hinge on who the panel agrees with. It will be heard by a three-judge panel with the Court of Arbitration in Sport, and both the ITF and Sharapova can select a judge, ESPN reported.

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