Confessions are a funny thing. Common thought is they reveal the transgression at play, but what they really expose is the character behind it. Confessions expose every word, the spoken and unspoken, so there is nowhere to hide.
Sport has so accustomed us to the truth that players spend millions on products to augment physical performance, that doping has found its way into our moral compass. The player’s personal reaction or confession is the true touchstone by which we judge, rather than by any moral wrong; we judge players according to how they judge themselves.
On March 7, Maria Sharapova admitted to failing a drug test during an Australian Open press conference. The incident is classic: rising sporting star, doping revelations, loss of respect and reputation, end of career. Only, for Sharapova, it wasn’t.
Sharapova had never broken regulation until meldonium was added to WADA’s banned list this year. Before any allegations could surface, she had already confessed.
In a 2013 Oprah interview, Lance Armstrong confessed to doping his way to all seven of his Tour de France titles. The circumstances exceeded Sharapova’s in drama and intensity. For at least a decade, Armstrong consistently denied allegations, went on the offensive and engaged in lawsuits against accusers, all to knowingly and voluntarily cheat. Not only did it take Armstrong over a decade to confess, it took Oprah to get him to do it. The interview itself lacks the remorse, shame, or hurt you would expect. His apology is facile, “One of the steps of this process is to say sorry. I was wrong, you were right”. Ultimately, Armstrong was sorry he got caught. He said taking drugs was “part of the job” and without them, it was impossible to win the Tour de France.
Whilst Armstrong had brazenly denied everything from 1995, Sharapova‘s confession, just a few days after her test results, is oddly refreshing. She called the press conference, got up there, came forward and accepted the repercussions. There was no denial, no shift of responsibility and most certainly, no assertion that she was caught up in the culture, or it was the only way to win.
Long-time rival, Serena Williams praised the confession, “…she was just upfront and very honest and showed a lot of courage to admit to what she had done and what she had neglected to look at”. Novak Djokovic said “she has approached this very maturely. I really admire that”. Rafael Nadal affirmed it must’ve been a “mistake”.
Whilst Nike and Tag Heuer have suspended their sponsorships, Sharapova’s racquet manufacturer,
Head, intends to extend her contract. Armstrong by contrast, was stripped of all seven Tour de France titles, and handed a lifetime ban from all sporting competitions. Last year, he was ordered by a Texas arbitration panel to pay $10 US million to previous sponsors.
While the scale of their breach is a factor, the real difference between the two is their respect for sport. Armstrong consistently compromised the procedural fairness of WADA and Union Cycliste Internationale for his own success. His case destroyed the credibility and integrity of cycling – something authorities, players and admirers tirelessly work to achieve. Without integrity, sport has no foundation. It has no platform to build and develop from.
Sharapova respected tennis enough to immediately confess. She protected her sport because it’s what gave her the strength and stamina to be a champion.
Post-scandal, tennis remains a highly credible and well-respected sport. I’m not sure the same can be said for cycling.