What Is Meldonium and Why Was Maria Sharapova Taking It?

Tennis player Maria Sharapova addresses the media regarding a failed drug test.
Tennis player Maria Sharapova addresses the media regarding a failed drug test. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Scandal continues to rock the tennis world. Just last month umpires were banned over a tumultuous match-fixing scandal. Today, five-time grand slam winner Maria Sharapova announced in an L.A. sports conference that she's failed a drug test. The 28-year-old tennis star (who also happens to be the highest-paid female athlete for the last 11 years), tested positive for meldonium. 

Never heard of it? No surprise there. This drug, which is typically used to treat ischemia or inadequate blood supply to the heart or other organs is made in Latvia, common in Eastern Europe, and not approved by the FDA. And as luck would have it for Sharapova, it was also just added to the World Anti Doping Agency's list of banned substances at the start of this year. Sharapova admits that she's been taking the medicine for the past ten years for health issues and despite getting an email from WADA informing her of newly-banned substances, she claims she missed the fact that it was now prohibited. 

But just what does meldonium do? British runner, blogger, and biochemist Jake G. Shelley explored this substance just last week in the wake of 1500m world champion Abebe Aregawi's suspension for, you guessed it, meldonium. "One review of the effects of meldonium on exercise performance listed the following benefits," he writes, including: 

  • "…Improved economy of glycogen: level of glycogen increased in the cells during the long-lasting exercise … increased endurance properties and aerobic capabilities of athletes.
  • …Improved functional parameters of heart activity.
  • Increased physical work capabilities.
  • Increased rate of recovery after maximal and sub-maximal loads."

In other words, it's a promising performance enhancer for endurance athletes. While initial reports seem to indicate that taking the substance was an honest mistake and Sharapova's taken full responsibility, she'll be provisionally suspended beginning on March 12th. Any 17-year-olds out there ready to reprise 2004 and take Wimbledon?