World No. 7 Maria Sharapova could face a ban as long as four years from the sport (though likely much shorter) for testing positive for meldonium, long one of athletes’ favorite legal substances before it made its way onto the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list on Jan 1. If her explanation is to be believed, it’s an object lesson to always read emails from the people who can ruin your life.
In her press conference yesterday revealing her positive test, Sharapova said she’s been taking meldonium since 2006 after being diagnosed with “a deficiency in magnesium and a family history of diabetes, and there were signs of diabetes.” (There are two different angles of cynicism you can employ when noting that someone so concerned with diabetes has her own line of candy.) But it wasn’t until last year that WADA began studying the drug, discovering its prevalence as a performance enhancer especially among Eastern European athletes, and announced in December that it would soon be banned.
Sharapova, who said she knows that WADA updates its banned list every year, claimed she simply didn’t look this time.
“I received a letter on Dec. 22 from WADA, an email with changes happening for next year as well as reporting your whereabouts and a link to a button where you can press to see the prohibited items for 2016,” she said. “I did not look at that list.”
Meldonium is prescribed for a number of conditions and works by increasing blood flow and the amount of oxygen in the blood. For that reason it’s useful for athletes looking to exercise longer and harder—something athletes have long known. Manufactured in Latvia and sold over-the-counter in the Baltic States and Russia (it’s not approved in the USA or the rest of Europe), meldonium showed up in the systems of 17 percent of Russian athletes in a 2015 study.
Sharapova’s decade-long use of the drug would appear to go against the recommendations for legitimate medical use. The company that manufactures meldonium says the typical “treatment course of meldonium preparations may vary from four to six weeks.”
The maximum ban for a violation is four years, though Sharapova’s team will seek to have her suspension significantly reduced by demonstrating that she had a condition that required use of the drug. Even in that case, a former UK anti-doping executive says she could be looking at a year-long ban at minimum.
In the meantime, Sharapova’s sponsors are fleeing. Nike, Tag Heuer, and Porsche have either suspended their relationships or cut ties completely.