Maria Sharapova warned FIVE times that Meldonium was being banned
Maria Sharapova was warned at least five times in the month before she failed a drugs test that a substance she had been taking for almost her entire career was being banned.
The world’s most famous female athlete was facing mounting questions after it emerged that players had been repeatedly contacted by the tennis authorities about meldonium being outlawed.
In the Russian’s bombshell announcement on Monday that she had tested positive for the drug at January’s Australian Open she said she had been oblivious to the change in its status and claimed she had failed to check correspondence informing her about it.
It transpires players were alerted to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s updated prohibited list on multiple occasions, from Dec 3 all the way through to Dec 29.
Wada’s founding president Dick Pound, who led an inquiry into Russian doping that resulted in the country being banned from world athletics last year, said: “All the tennis players were given notification of it and she has a medical team somewhere. That is reckless beyond description.”
Doubt was also cast on Sharapova’s explanation for taking meldonium for the past 10 years, leaving her career and reputation on a knife-edge as the £130 million empire she built since winning Wimbledon aged 17 began to crumble.
The five-time grand slam champion claimed the drug 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 after Wada found “evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance”, was called into question when the Latvian manufacturer said it would normally be taken for only 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 Sharapova’s meldonium, which he described as “an over-the-counter drug” which 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. “The dosage Maria was taking was substantially less than any dosage that has been linked with the performance-enhancing attributes of mildronate.” Haggerty said 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 was confident there was “no evidence whatsoever” she had intended to cheat, which would rule out a four-year ban, and said “substantial mitigating factors” justified a ban of “significantly below” the next entry point of two years.
Haggerty refused to reveal whether Sharapova had sought an exemption for her use of it after she learnt of her failed drugs test. Athletes can apply for a backdated therapeutic use exemption after testing positive for banned substances, something which when granted would lead to them avoiding a sanction.
Sharapova’s bid to limit the damage at a press conference on Monday failed to stop three major sponsors distancing themselves from her. Nike acted swiftly, suspending its contract with her, watchmaker Tag Heuer cut off talks aimed at renewing a contract that expired on December 31 , while luxury car brand Porsche, which signed Sharapova as its first global ambassador in 2013, said it had decided “to postpone planned activities.”
The Russian has been the highest-earning female athlete in the world for the past 11 years, with her off-court endorsements dwarfing her income from prize money. According to Forbes, she netted £21 million in 2015 alone. Among her other sponsors, Avon declined to comment, but Evian ostensibly stuck by her.
She also received support from her nemesis, Serena Williams, who beat her at the Australian Open at which she tested positive. “I think most people were surprised and shocked but, at the same time, most people were happy that she was just up front and honest and showed a lot of courage to admit to what she had done and what she had neglected to look at,” the world No 1 said.