Banned substance trips up a growing list of athletes

LOS ANGELES • Maria Sharapova is by far the most prominent athlete to be barred for meldonium. But the tennis star is hardly alone.

She is the seventh athlete in a month to test positive for the substance since it was placed on the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) banned list on Jan 1 after being on its monitoring list last year.

Over the past month, Russian cyclist Eduard Vorganov; Ethiopian Endeshaw Negesse, the current Tokyo Marathon champion; and Ukraine biathletes Olga Abramova and Artem Tyshchenko have all tested positive for meldonium.

Another, reportedly, who failed a test was Abeba Aregawi, a Swede who won the women's 1,500m at the 2013 world championships.

Also on Monday, Russian Olympic gold medallist Ekaterina Bobrova announced she had tested positive for meldonium at this year's European Figure Skating Championships, where she and her partner Dmitry Soloviev placed third.

While expressing surprise, Bobrova told reporters that she was aware of meldonium being placed on the banned list. But Sharapova said she was unaware of the change before receiving notification of her positive test last Wednesday.

"It is very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on Wada's banned list and I had been legally taking the medicine," she said on Monday.

"But on Jan 1, the rules have changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance."

The 28-year-old indicated she continued to take the drug while regularly checking the list to confirm that it was not prohibited.

Wada, in conjunction with the International Tennis Federation, sends an e-mail to players at the end of each year with a link to a list of banned substances.

Sharapova confessed to not clicking on the link this time.

"I received a letter on Dec 22 from Wada, an e-mail with changes happening for next year as well as reporting your whereabouts and a link to a button (which) you can press to see the prohibited items for 2016," she said.

"I did not look at that list."

When her management group, IMG Tennis, sent word to the media on Sunday about the news conference but supplied no details, speculation was widespread that she would announce her retirement. She had played just three Tour events and the Fed Cup final in the last eight months because of persistent injuries.

But when she walked glumly to a lectern at a ballroom in a downtown Los Angeles hotel, a sheet of paper in hand, Sharapova promptly changed the expected storyline by instead disclosing the failed test.

Under the rules of tennis' anti-doping programme, Sharapova's positive test would not normally have been announced by the ITF until the adjudication process had been completed.

But she decided to make her case public and her attorney John Haggerty said she did not intend to request that her B sample be tested.

"If I was ever going to announce my retirement it would probably not be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet," Sharapova said in a half-hearted attempt to lighten things up.

There could yet be more announcements indicating that Russian athletes may be disqualified from international competitions for using meldonium.

"I think, unfortunately, several more cases may take place... Many athletes took this substance," Russia's sports minister Vitaly Mutko was quoted by R-Sport as saying.

REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline 'Banned substance trips up a growing list of athletes'. Print Edition | Subscribe