Maria Sharapova bravely faced the press on Monday 7th March 2016 and reported that she had failed a drugs test. The press expected her to be announcing her retirement at the age of 29 and a glittering career. In fact, she declared that she had failed a drugs test for meldonium on 26th January, following her match with Serena Williams at the Australian open.
All top sport people will be subjected to drug testing both in and out of competition. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) control the World’s drug testing by having sports governing bodies (in this case the International Tennis Federation) adhere to their testing policies and procedures. Every January WADA publish a list of banned substances. They also maintain a list of monitored substances. Meldonium (or as previously known mildronate) was on the monitored list but WADA decided to add it to the banned list from 1st January 2016. This will be because WADA have noticed increasing usage and determined that it has performance enhancing effects. It increases endurance capacity. Something which is clearly of benefit in tennis matches and training.
Sharapova claimed she had been taking the drug for 10 years for medicinal purposes. She admitted that she had received an e-mail from WADA on 22nd December informing her that the status of meldronium would be changed from 1st January. By her own admission, she ignored the e-mail. In fact, sports people and their support staff were notified as far back as September that meldronium was being added to the banned list.
Sports people can face a ban from their sport for varying lengths of time depending on the drug and the circumstances. A four year ban is a possibility but her lawyers will argue that she was taking the drug legitimate for medical purposes. That should not wash. If that was the case then she should have submitted a Therapeutic Use Exemption Certificate (TUE). She should not be able to claim she didn’t know. That is not a legitimate defence. Her sponsors have suspended their support for her rapidly and now we wait for the ITF to make their decision.
WADA are potentially expecting a number of such cases. It is possible that a number of Ethiopian athletes have failed tests for meldronium recently, but these have yet to be publically confirmed.