Women’s tennis star Maria Sharapova admitted earlier this week to taking a banned drug named meldonium. Most often used to treat heart problems, experts say the drug can also provide unfair performance enhancing benefits to athletes.
As reported by NBC News, meldonium was found in the tennis champ’s system during drug testing at the Australian Open. The substance had been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in January.
“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. But on January the first, the rules have changed.”
Sharapova said an email was sent to her regarding the prohibition, but she somehow missed it and continued to take the drug by mistake.
Don Catlin, former director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab, says athletes trust their doctors when it comes to medications like meldonium.
“Athletes rely on their physicians to warn them about things like this. Obviously, it wasn’t a red flag for her Russian physician. There’s no way to conclude that this was deliberate or not deliberate doping.”
Meldonium, marketed as mildronate, is primarily used to improve blood flow and fight heart disease. Made by pharmaceutical company Grindeks, it is mostly sold in Russia and some former Soviet countries. It can also be purchased online, but is not approved for use in the U.S.
Grindeks says the drug helps “improve physical capacity and mental function” in patients that suffer from reduced blood flow. Meldonium is used to treat various heart and vascular diseases as well as blood flow disorders in the brain.
According to the company’s website, healthy people without blood flow problems can also experience benefits. The heart medication can reduce physical and mental overloads.
Sharapova announced on Monday that meldonium has helped her overcome a variety of health problems over the past 10 years. She said the drug helped her with irregular EKG’s and a magnesium deficiency. According to her statement, she was often ill prior to starting the medication.
However, WADA believes athletes use the drug as a way to deliberately enhance performance. The organization says meldonium is a “metabolic modulator” and increases oxygen in the blood. They classify it the same as insulin, which can also be used to boost athletic ability and endurance.
WADA recently began monitoring meldonium use among professional athletes and has found a significant number using it. The drug was put on their official banned list as of January 1.
Now that Sharapova has tested positive for the substance, many companies quickly revoked their sponsorships of the tennis star. As previously reported by The Inquisitr, Nike and Tag Heuer declared they will not renew sponsorship deals with the 28-year-old tennis player.
Other athletes seem to be receiving benefits from taking meldonium. Shortly after Sharapova’s announcement, Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova also admitted to taking the drug. Two Ukrainians, speed skater Pavel Kulizhnikov and cyclist Eduard Vorganov, have also tested positive for the prohibited substance.
Due to the popularity of meldonium, Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, is certain more athletes will be found using it.
“Unfortunately, a lot of athletes took this medicine. This medicine used to be allowed, it does not do anything major, it just helped a lot of people with their recovery times; it did not offer any unfair advantages.”
For failing the drug test, Sharapova has been suspended with an effective date of March 12 pending a final decision on her case, according to the Tennis Anti-Doping Program. She faces a potential suspension from tennis for up to four years.
While there seem to be benefits to taking meldonium for people with blood flow problems, the performance advantages it provides to athletes may create unfair competition in sports, and questions still remain if Sharapova was aware of these advantages.
[Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Image]