Analysis: Tennis denies covering up
18th January 2016
Tennis star Maria Sharapova, currently seventh in the WTA Tour rankings, has been provisionally suspended after being charged with an anti-doping rule violation (ADRV) after testing positive for meldonium at the Australian Open. Sharapova has accepted the finding, and will be provisionally suspended from 12 March pending the outcome of her case.
‘On 26 January 2016, Ms Sharapova provided an anti-doping sample to the TADP in association with her participation in the 2016 Australian Open’, read a Tennis Anti-Doping Programme statement. ‘That sample was analysed by a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) accredited laboratory, which returned a positive for meldonium, which is a prohibited substance under the WADA Code and, therefore also the TADP. In accordance with Article 8.1.1 of the TADP, Ms Sharapova was charged on 2 March with an Anti-Doping Rule Violation.’
In a press conference (video below), Sharapova said that she had been taking mildronate since 2006 on the advice of her doctor for health issues including magnesium deficiency, an irregular heartbeat, and a family history of diabetes. She also took full responsibility for her positive test. “I received a letter on December 22nd from WADA – an email – with the changes happening for next year as well as reporting your whereabouts and a link to a button where you could press to see the prohibited items for 2016, and I did not look at that list”, she said.
Mildronate is another name for meldonium, which in September 2015 was added to the 2016 WADA Prohibited List, after WADA found ‘evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance’. It is an anti-ischemic drug used to treat restrictions in blood supply to tissues, such as in cases of angina and heart failure. It is therefore understood to also be able to increase the supply of oxygen-carrying red blood cells to muscle tissue.
It is manufactured in Latvia and is used in Lithuania and the Russian Federation, but is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in the United States, where Sharapova has lived since the age of seven. Although the substance is not widely available, you can buy it on Amazon. It featured in Hajo Seppelt’s latest documentary, broadcast on Sunday, which mentioned a 2015 study in which 724 of 4,316 Russian athletes (17%) were found to have meldonium in their system. In another 2015 study, it was found in 182 of 8,230 athletes (2.2%).
Under the Prohibited List, Meldonium is considered a non-specified substance, which means that there is no non-doping explanation for having the substance in an athlete’s system. The standard ban under the World Anti-Doping Code is four years which, as Sharapova has been dogged by injuries, could mean the end of her career. Sharapova therefore pleaded for leniency in her sanctioning. “I don’t want my career to end this way, and I really hope that I will be given another chance to play this game”, she said.
Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova said that she and her partner, Dmitri Solovyov had withdrawn from the World Figure Skating Championships after she had tested positive for meldonium. Bobrova and Solovyov took gold at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. It is understood that world indoor 1,500m champion Abeba Aregawi, who was provisionally suspended on 1 March, also tested positive for meldonium. As our table below shows, at least six athletes have tested positive for meldonium since the revised Prohibited List came into effect on 1 January this year.
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