Neil Robertson says Maria Sharapova’s failed doping test should serve as a lesson to all snooker players – and especially those making their way in the game.
Those on the World Snooker tour do not have tens of millions banked like the Russian tennis superstar, and a doping violation – even accidental – could seriously harm their career and earning prospects.
Having failed a test for meldonium, recently added to the World Anti-Doping Agency banned list, Sharapova claimed in a spectacular televised mea culpa she had taken it for medical reasons for a decade and that January’s test was down to an admin oversight.
So far, so accidental. Those of a slightly more cynical and questioning nature could not help noticing that the drug was used elsewhere in Russia, not least in the army, for performance-enhancing reasons. Others with knowledge of the drug questioned some of Sharapova’s medical claims. The manufacturers have said the drug is intended for use in spells of 4-6 weeks, not 10 years.
The real point here is that even if Sharapova took the drug with no knowledge it could, or intention to, enhance performance, and the error was just a terrible mistake, she faces a ban that could be months or years for her mistake.
And that wake-up call will make everyone in sport sit up and take notice, because if it can happen to a global icon with a huge back-up team of doctors and nutritionists, it can certainly happen to a snooker player travelling alone and suddenly falling ill at an event.
In the war on match-fixing, doping has perhaps taken second billing but it has never gone away, is an ever-present part of tournaments, and violations could have devastating personal consequences.
The incident reminded Robertson of one of his most anxious moments in snooker back at the 2007 Welsh Open, sweating over the result of a doping test having taken medication that he had not checked on his own list or with the tournament office.
The world No3 from Australia, the reigning UK champion, said: “It is a wake-up call and a reminder to everyone to be careful.
“We get sent a list of banned drugs and substances at the start of the season to refer to – and then the tournament office also have a list at events.
“So you are often seeing players going in to ask Mike Ganley or Martin Clark whether they can take this or that for say a cold.
“You would often check with them, because it can involve going through each ingredient in tiny writing on a box of a flu remedy.
“You do see that there is almost total trust from a lot of players in what they say, but ultimately it is up to the player, it is their responsibility what goes in their body.
“And I do think for most players it is the cold and flu tablets that could catch them out, nobody believes there are many if any performance-enhancing drugs being taken.
“I still remember vividly at the Welsh Open in 2007, when I beat Hendry, O’Sullivan and Steve Davis on the way to the title. I had a shocking cold all week and had missed a lot of practice.
“I just wasn’t aware at that time about anything, and thought drug tests were all about steroids and cocaine use. I bought some flu tablets from Boots without thinking they could be banned.
“I think it was after the quarters against Ronnie that it suddenly hit me ‘I don’t know what was in that medication I bought’. I was incredibly nervous until I found out it was fine.
“It is the non-standard cold and flu remedies, the ‘Plus’ ones that can be on the list. It is even harder on China, and not just because you often don’t know what you are ordering or what is in it.
“You drink so much water out there they often say the sample isn’t strong enough and players can be there until 2am. If you have lost, that’s not great.
“But listen, we have seen this week the implications of getting it wrong. If you have sponsors, they may drop you, you could be banned and not earning, prevented from doing your sport.
“I can see how it could happen accidentally but you have to be careful and can get paranoid. I have walked down a street past someone smoking a joint, and been worried that if I breathed in that would leave a trace of cannabis.
“But it is hard, especially maybe for young players. The list you get has a load of names on there you can’t even pronounce and would struggle to spell. You just have to familiarize yourself with the basics.”
Tests at snooker tournaments in the UK, or ‘in competition’ in the jargon, are carried out by independent toxicology specialist company Alere.
Most sports use UK Anti-Doping’s services, but while snooker follows World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines including on sanctions it is not fully compliant with their requirements for testing, and as such UKAD will not do it.
In-tournament, snooker would be fine, with random tests for winners and losers in each round and then after the final.
Where snooker currently falls short are the arrangements for out-of-competition testing, which would need all players effectively signed up online and making their whereabouts known at all times.
While this would present some difficulties, that has not been a good enough reason NOT to do it for many, indeed most other sports.
And mindful of snooker’s Olympics ambitions it may well be something that those in charge have to revisit at some point if they are not to be disappointed in dealings with the IOC. This aspect of not being fully WADA-compliant is bound to come under scrutiny, and even more so now.
Photograph courtesy of Monique Limbos