Maria Sharapova’s racket sponsor, Head, has been accused of being “highly cynical and irresponsible” after the company suggested extending her contract despite her positive drugs test at the Australian Open in January.
The former cyclist David Millar, who was banned for taking EPO and later became a World Anti-Doping Agency committee member, also called for a code that would punish an athlete’s sponsors if their client committed a doping offence.
Head said it wanted to extend its deal with Sharapova because it was “proud” of its relationship with the five-times grand slam winner. In a statement, it also described her as “a role model and woman of integrity who has earned the benefit of the doubt and we are extending it to her”.
The company’s chairman and chief executive, John Eliasch, added that: “In the absence of any evidence of any intent by Maria of enhancing her performance or trying to gain an unfair advantage through the use of mildronate, we conclude this falls into the category of ‘honest’ mistakes.”
Millar was scathing in his response. “That definitely sends the wrong message,” he said. “It’s a highly cynical move. That’s fairly irresponsible by Head and it’s sending the worst possible message there is.
“There is no such thing as bad publicity for sponsors. There is nothing at stake for them. Because of that, they are profiting from it. They wouldn’t sponsor Sharapova, or Lance Armstrong back in the day, if it wasn’t of economical interest to them.”
Millar, who was caught taking the blood boosting drug EPO in 2004, suggested that if sponsors were hit with a significant penalty after their athletes cheated it would encourage them to engage more with the fight against doping.
“Sponsors should pay an economical price if one of their athletes does make a mistake because you would be amazed at the difference that would make,” Millar said. “They would become more proactive, they would actually have to buy into the fact they are there to prevent and not just external bodies that have nothing to do with it.” When Millar was reminded Sharapova earned $35m in endorsements last year, he suggested the financial penalty for sponsorships had to be significant.
“It has to be big, if we are talking numbers like that it has to be more than 20%,” he said. “Any less and they won’t give a shit. Having their brands taken off all events for two months, or a heavy fine, that kind of thing.
“Make Adidas, Nike or Puma or whoever it is, be sanctioned as well. Then all of a sudden it would be ‘we need to get involved in this’.”
Millar, who was speaking at the Tackling Doping in Sport Conference at Twickenham, also called for Sharapova’s entourage to be banned if she was found guilty of doping. “Whoever got it for her, that person should be held responsible as well. She must tell us who the people involved were, and the entourage needs to be sanctioned as well.”
He also warned the International Tennis Federation needed to do more to tackle drugs. “I’m not sure they are at the level they need to be at,” he said. “It does seem a little bit lackadaisical what they are doing and it has been proven by Sharapova.
“Cases like this will wake people up. It will make people realise something needs to happen. Sadly for Maria it takes somebody of her status to create this dialogue and it’s the only way the ITF will be forced to have a look at themselves and put themselves into action.”
Millar claimed that sport was “in the dark ages” when it came to tackling doping but insisted Wada was doing its best to address the problem, despite its tight budget.
“I think Wada is doing its best with their funding,” he said. “They have been fighting in the wind for those 17 years. They are massively underbudgeted. People there are hugely passionate and if we didn’t have them we’d be in a lot of trouble. Hopefully in 25 years’ time we’ll have this problem fixed and we’ll look back now and think we were in the dark ages.”
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