Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Doping and Match Fixing: Has Tennis Crossed the Line?

News of professional tennis player Maria Sharapova failing a drug test at the Australian Open has spread rapidly, especially since tennis is generally considered a more sophisticated sport, and people don’t usually think of tennis players when they think about athletes that are doping (see the video below of the press conference where Sharapova made the announcement). While Sharapova says that the drug she was taking was a medicine given to her for health reasons that was only just recently banned by WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency), she still takes responsibility for taking it after it became a banned substance. Additionally, this situation has brought to light other instances of potential fraud in professional tennis, including doping and fixing matches.

A recent article on discusses the stance that tennis as a sport has taken against doping. The article points out that the main surprise about Sharapova admitting to using banned substances is that she made her situation and statement public. Historically, professional tennis has been criticized for quietly punishing players who use performance enhancing drugs. As Roselyne Bachelot, the former French minister for sport and health, stated, “We never hear about positive tests… we just learn that players pick up injuries that keep them off the courts for months.” Sharapova made a comment to fans on Facebook that corroborates this: “I won't pretend to be injured so I can hide the truth about my testing.” Whether or not Sharapova knew she wasn’t supposed to take the drug she was using, it is apparent that professional tennis as a whole likes to hide instances of substance abuse through lengthy recoveries and early retirements.

A joint investigation by BBC and Buzzfeed also raised awareness about allegations of match fixing in professional tennis (see the article here). Match fixing is when one or both players decide to play in such a way that a certain player either wins the match, a particular set, or a particular game. This allows for people betting on the matches to make a fortune. Tennis is more prone to match fixing than other sports because there are fewer players that need to be paid off in order to affect the results of the match. While all of the collecting bodies in tennis formed the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) in order to protect the integrity of tennis from match fixing, many allege that the TIU doesn’t actually pursue investigations in order to punish those who are involved in match fixing. One investigator says that after a 9-month investigation that identified about 10 players who had likely been involved in match fixing, the TIU did nothing to follow up with their investigation and none of the players were punished, at least not within the next two years.

BBC also conducted an interview with Daniel Koellerer, former professional tennis player who was banned for life for allegedly fixing matches (though he denies the claims), in which Koellerer stated that hundreds of professional tennis players are approached and offered amounts of $50,000 or more to purposefully lose a match (see the video of the interview below). When large amounts of money are involved, many people do things they wouldn’t normally do, and it is almost certain that some players have been involved in match fixing. And just as professional tennis organizations like to keep drug test failures quiet, with minimal punishments, it appears they take the same approach with match fixing.

I love tennis and hope to continue watching and playing the sport, but if there aren’t punishments enforced for cheating, then cheating will become rampant. Just as businesses would likely commit more fraud if there were not penalties assessed, athletes will fix matches and dope in order to maximize their income if there are no penalties. It is important that rule violations are made public and appropriate actions are taken to ensure that others don’t continue to cheat.

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