Sharapova scrutinized for doping, tests positive for meldonium

On Sunday, March 6, when Maria Sharapova’s agent said that Sharapova would hold a press conference the next day to make a major announcement, most people speculated that she would announce her retirement. This was a likely assumption given her numerous career injuries, recent lack of success on the court and age. But she shocked everyone when she announced that she had failed a drug test at the Australian Open in January, testing positive for a drug called meldonium.

Sharapova was suspended provisionally starting March 12, and could be suspended up to four years, depending on whether the International Tennis Federation finds that she purposefully took the performance enhancer or did so accidentally. In addition to losing potential prize money by not playing, she is also taking a hit from her endorsements, which make up the majority of her earnings. Because of her endorsements, from which she earned $23 million last year, Sharapova is the highest-paid female athlete in the world. But after her announcement, Nike disclosed that it was suspending its eight-year $70 million contract with Sharapova. Tag Heuer also decided to end negotiations to renew her contract, and Porsche said that it was “postponing planned activities” until they learn more about the severity of her punishment, putting on hold talks to extend Sharapova’s contract.

Sharapova defended herself, explaining that she had been taking the drug for the last 10 years and did not know that the Women’s Anti-Doping Agency had just placed it on the banned substances list at the beginning of 2016. She says that she knew the drug as its other name, mildronate, and also did not look at the link in the email listing the banned substances for 2016. However, after her announcement, reports said that she was warned five times by tennis authorities that meldonium had been banned at the start of 2016. Many wondered how Sharapova could not have found out that meldonium was now banned, considering that she has such a large support team of doctors, trainers and coaches.   

WADA banned meldonium after finding that athletes had been using the drug to improve their performance. A 2015 study that examined 8,300 urine samples found that 182 of them, or 2.2 percent, contained meldonium. WADA became suspicious because it thought that healthy athletes were taking the same heart medicine for performance enhancement while not actually having any heart problems. Since WADA placed meldonium on its banned substance list, Sharapova has not been the only athlete taking meldonium, although she is definitely the most well-known. The New York Times reports that over 60 athletes have already tested positive for meldonium since it was banned on Jan. 1.

Meldonium is used to treat conditions in which the heart is not receiving enough oxygen. Athletes may take meldonium because it may help increase endurance and recovery by increasing blood flow and oxygen to the heart. Furthermore, there have been many reports that Soviet troops regularly took meldonium in the 1980s to boost stamina while fighting in Afghanistan. The inventor of the drug said that the drug would combat the loss of oxygen in the high altitudes of Afghanistan.

There are many issues surrounding the plausibility of Sharapova’s story. Sharapova pointed to irregular EKG results, pre-diabetes, a deficiency in magnesium and multiple cases of the flu as reasons for why she started taking meldonium. Although Sharapova was born in Russia, she has lived in the United States since she was seven, so it is odd that Sharapova would take a drug that is not approved for sale or use in the United States. Further, many wonder how Sharapova obtained meldonium because it is illegal to import unapproved drugs into the United States. However, the Food and Drug Administration says that it does allow imports for personal use, and in these cases, a three-month supply is only allowed. This still does not clear up the issue as Sharapova has been taking meldonium for 10 years. While meldonium does help one’s ability to handle glucose, it is mainly used to treat heart problems, specifically where the heart is not getting enough oxygen. Not only in the United States, but also  in Russia, where the drug is available, it is rarely used as a treatment for pre-diabetes. There is a much better option specifically for pre-diabetes that is approved for use in the United States.

According to many reports, the manufacturer of the drug says that the normal treatment is only four-to-six weeks, and that treatment could be repeated possibly two or three times a year, as opposed to the 10 years that Sharapova took the drug. Her lawyer, John Haggerty, denies that she took meldonium every day for the last 10 years. But even if she could have taken it on and off for 10 years, there still was never sufficient reason for her to take meldonium, as it is a heart medicine and not a pre-diabetes medicine. Therefore, it is likely that she was taking meldonium for its performance-enhancing benefits.

Sharapova could receive a suspension of up to four years, depending on whether the ITF considers her actions to be accidental or purposeful. Most experts believe that she will only be given up to two years because she may not have purposefully disobeyed the new regulation. She did the right thing by accepting full responsibility and not deflecting blame onto her support team, so she could curry favor with the ITF. However, considering her age and waning success, even if Sharapova receives the two-year suspension, she may have already played her last professional tennis match.