Tennis star Maria Sharapova has admitted using a performance enhancing substance, and sponsors are already suspending ties with her. We’ve seen this is movie before, surely: Sports star caught cheating, career over, big waste, etc. Or… have we?
Normally there is a tight link between winning competition prizes and racking up the type of lucrative commercial sponsorships that can keep a mansion’s lights on. Being caught doping ends both, typically swiftly and fatally. Or, at least, that’s how it works for most athletes: No more winning means that your doting sponsor friends suddenly see no reason to keep writing those checks.
Being likeable does smooth the whole sponsorship process along too, of course, but really only as a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Winning is the key active ingredient to this alchemy; the world is brimming with extremely likeable people who have never once been approached to front pricey watches.
Sharapova, though, isn’t just likeable, she’s also strikingly beautiful. It may be an indictment of the world we live in, but the combination of fame and beauty is sometimes sufficient to make a good living, all on its own. Can she make that transition?
If she’s lucky, she may not have to. By far her easiest path back to sponsorship nirvana would be to serve out her suspension, and get back to winning. By announcing the violation herself she seems to have avoided being fatally tagged as a malicious cheater. Her story of missing that a legitimately needed medicine had just been banned may not be bullet proof, but it’s probably good enough. By taking public responsibility for her misstep, she has likely been able to leave the door open for a future return to form. You will notice that most of her sponsors announced that relations were “suspended” rather than “ended”.
It’s far from a given, though, that she will be able to do this. She is turning 29 in about a month, so a (likely) two or four year suspension will carry her past 30 years of age; the boundary that tends to mark the competitive downslope for elite athletic performance in most sports. On the one hand, turning 30 does not seem to be the death sentence to an elite tennis career that it used to be, due to the better nutrition and care that players are able to take of their bodies. On the other hand, Sharapova’s body has already accrued a significant history of injuries, and so may not age gently enough to maintain elite performance for long.
If she cannot return to winning major tennis tournaments, though, can she yet find new life through raw physical attractiveness and celebrity appeal? That was never an option for athletes like Lance Armstrong, who, without extraordinary feats of cycling, was just some random slippery cheater from Texas. But for an extremely pretty and vivacious blonde woman, who already enjoys significant name recognition and a built-in following? You can’t say that she isn’t in with a chance.