MOSCOW • Four Russian track-and-field athletes have tested positive for the banned drug meldonium, the country's athletics chief said yesterday - a disclosure that further undermines Moscow's efforts to overturn a doping ban in time for August's Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
At least 16 Russian sportsmen and women, including tennis star Maria Sharapova and speed skating Olympic winner Semion Elistratov, have been caught using meldonium since it was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) on Jan 1.
Despite warnings from sports officials that a number of other Russian competitors could have taken the substance, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told Reuters earlier this month meldonium had nothing to do with athletics in his country.
But Dmitry Shlyakhtin, head of the Russian Athletics Federation (Araf), revealed that four athletes have now tested positive.
"We have information that four people gave positive tests for meldonium. We will deal with this today," the Interfax news agency quoted him saying.
Shlyakhtin did not name them despite Russian sprinter Nadezhda Kotlyarova revealing on Sunday that she had taken meldonium.
An unnamed source told TASS news agency, however, that the four are Kotlyarova, long-distance runners Andrei Minzhulin and Gulshat Fazletdinova, and steeplechaser Olga Vovk.
The burgeoning scandal will complicate Russia's campaign to prove it is compliant with Wada's standards after being suspended from international competition last year following revelations of cheating and corruption.
Russian athletes face missing the Olympics, starting in Rio on Aug 5 - a humiliating blow to a country that has long drawn pride as an athletics superpower.
Mutko said yesterday the cases of meldonium use in Russian athletics should not be connected to his country's preparations for the Olympics, and athletes would be tested at least three times before leaving for Rio.
"Everyone who is preparing for the Games is being monitored, but the issue of meldonium is a separate issue," he said. "Our sportsmen have been warned - they can be tested at any time."