Clouds gather over Maria Sharapova as experts query use of meldonium
Maria Sharapova was facing mounting questions last night after doubt was cast on her explanation for taking a recently banned substance for almost her entire career.
The reputation of the world's most famous female athlete was on a knife-edge as the £130m empire she built since winning Wimbledon aged 17 began to crumble in the wake of her failed dope test at the Australian Open.
Sharapova dramatically outed herself on Monday night as the biggest name yet to be caught taking meldonium since it was outlawed on New Year's Day. What she called a "huge mistake" carries a ban of up to four years and has already resulted in three of her biggest sponsors severing their links with her.
Russia's five-time grand slam winner revealed she had taken the drug for a decade, claiming it was "medicine" her doctor had given her for a magnesium deficiency and irregular heart readings. She also cited a family history of diabetes.
But her justification for the long-term use of meldonium, which was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency after it found "evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance", was called into question when the Latvian company which manufacturers it said it would normally be taken only for four to six weeks at a time.
Medical experts were also sceptical about Sharapova's motivation for using a drug which is not licensed in the United States, where she has lived since the age of seven.
The head of science and medicine at UK Anti-Doping, Nick -Wojek, said it would be "surprising" if a doctor was to prescribe meldonium for as long as 10 years and that any non-therapeutic use of it would be "unethical".
Dr Tim Chico, an honorary consultant cardiologist at Sheffield University, said Sharapova had not provided "any clear explanation" why she would need to take it.
The United States Food and Drug Administration said it would neither confirm nor deny whether it was investigating if Sharapova or her doctor had broken the law by bringing meldonium - also known as mildronate - into the country. But a spokesperson added: "It is illegal for consumers to import unapproved drugs into the US."
Sharapova's lawyer John J Haggerty refused to reveal the source of the meldonium, which he described as "an over-the-counter drug" that could be purchased in many countries. "I do want to disabuse the fact that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that's simply not the case," he said.
"I can't go into detail about specific medical records because of the confidentiality of the process, nor can I identify her doctor. But the dosage Maria was taking was substantially less than any dosage that has been linked with the performance-enhancing attributes of mildronate."
He confirmed that Sharapova's medical records would be shared with the International Tennis Federation and would "make it clear that the medical treatment was necessary and recommended by her doctor".
He refused to reveal whether Sharapova had sought an exemption for her use of meldonium before or after she learnt of her failed test. Athletes can apply for a backdated therapeutic use exemption after testing positive for a banned substance. When granted it would lead to them avoiding a ban.
Sharapova's problems mounted yesterday when three major sponsors distanced themselves. Nike suspended its contract with her, and was followed by watchmaker Tag Heuer and car brand Porsche.(© Daily Telegraph, London)