On Monday, shortly before she was set to play in the Australian Open, Maria Sharapova announced that she had tested positive for something called meldonium, and that she would have to step away from the game as a result.
It was a swift and stunning revelation from one of the game’s highest-profile players. The International Tennis Federation provisionally suspended her from the game, and major sponsors like Nike and Tag Heuer decided to suspend or not renew their relationships with her.
Our reaction when we heard the news: Meldon-what now? If it was banned, it was the first we’d heard about it. Here’s what you need to know about the drug, what it does, and why it’s banned.
What Is Meldonium?
Meldonium, which Sharapova knew as mildronate, is a drug used to treat problems like ischaemia by improving blood flow throughout the body, The Guardian reports. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) had added it to their list of monitored substances in 2015, and then officially prohibited beginning in 2016. WADA officials said they had had warned Russian athletes as early as September of 2015 that it would be banned.
What Does Meldonium Do?
The WADA lists meldonium as a “metabolic modulator,” and found that it can help supply muscles with more oxygen. “Meldonium was added [to the Prohibited List] because of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance,” the WADA noted rather dryly in a statement about the Sharapova case.
It was created in the 1980s by Ivars Kalvins, a Soviet scientist, to help Soviet troops in Afghanistan deal with ischemia, a blood circulation condition. It “allows you to withstand more physical pressure, but the body still spends its spare reserves,” Kalvins told a Latvian newspaper in 2009.
Has Anyone Else Been Caught With Meldonium?
Sharapova isn’t the first athlete to be punished for testing positive for meldonium. Abeba Aregawi, a Swedish athlete who won the 1500m at the 2013 world championships, was forced to withdraw from competition in February after testing positive. Ekaterina Bobrova, a Russian ice dancer who competed in the Olympics, and Eduard Vorganov, a Russian cyclist, also tested positive.
Why Haven’t We Heard of It?
Meldonium is only made in Latvia and is only used in the Baltic nations and Russia. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved it for use in America, and it’s likewise unapproved in most of Western Europe. That partly explains why Sharapova, who is Russian, would have been exposed to it, while American athletes would not.
What Did Sharapova Admit?
She said she’d taken it as a child for unspecified health problems starting 10 years ago. “I was given this medicine by my doctor for several health issues I was having back in 2006,” including repeatedly catching the flu, a magnesium deficiency, and a family history of diabetes.
Her lawyer said she had taken it under doctor supervision and that she had not taken it consistently since then, saying Tuesday he wanted “to disabuse the concept that Maria took mildronate every day for 10 years because that’s simply not the case.”
That’s a key detail, because “depending on the patient’s health condition, treatment course of meldonium preparations may vary from four to six weeks,” a representative from Grindeks, the company that makes the drug, said in an email to The Associated Press. “Treatment courses can be repeated twice or thrice a year,” the company said in an email.