Tennis officials were aware there was a problem with the use of meldonium in the sport before five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova tested positive, World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) Independent Commission chair Richard Pound claimed here today.
Sharapova announced at a hastily-arranged press conference in Los Angeles on Monday (March 7) that she had failed a drugs test at the Australian Open in January.
The 28-year-old revealed she had returned a positive test for meldonium, the heart attack drug only added to the WADA banned list on January 1.
Pound, the Canadian lawyer who is the longest-serving member of the International Olympic Committee, believes officials within tennis had knowledge that a high amount of top-level players were using the drug ahead of Sharapova’s positive test.
He had claimed here that the ITF were the body which flagged up the issue of meldonium to WADA last year, leading to the substance being placed on the watch list, though this has been denied by world tennis’ governing body and WADA.
“I believe that tennis discovered a high prevalence of use,” Pound told the Tackling Doping in Sport Conference here.
“Clearly within the tennis circle at least they were aware that a lot of players were using it, so they said there must be something to this.”
Sharapova claims not to have read the list of recently banned substances.
She insisted she was prescribed the medication for health issues dating back to 2006, including magnesium deficiency, an irregular heartbeat, and a family history of diabetes.
“While I cannot go into detail out of respect for the International Tennis Federation (ITF) process, I can confirm that Ms Sharapova had abnormal EKG tests in 2006 and was also diagnosed with asthenia (a lack of energy or strength), decreased immunity and diabetes indicators,” Sharapova’s lawyer John Haggerty told Reuters.
"She also had a family history of heart conditions.
"The mildronate [another name for meldonium] and the other medicines recommended by her doctor treated these conditions."
Sharapova is expected to appear before the International Tennis Federation's doping panel at a meeting in London on March 23.
Pound’s comments follow the release of a study into the use of meldonium at last year's European Games in Baku, which revealed that the substance was present in 15 of the 21 sports on the programme for the inaugural edition of the event.
The report was co-authored by Klaus Steinback, chair of the European Olympic Committees Medical Commission, and contributed to WADA's decision to move the drug from its monitoring programme to its prohibited list.
A total of 66 out of the 762 athlete urine samples provided returned a positive test for the substance.
Among the most affected was canoeing, where 15 out of the 48 samples at the Games tested positive for the Latvian-manufactured drug.
Eleven out of 64 samples analysed in wrestling contained the substance, while gymnastics also recorded a high reading, with 26.9 per cent of the 26 samples given testing positive.
The report, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, revealed that six gold medallists at the Games in the Azerbaijani capital had declared taking meldonium.
“The European Olympic Committees (EOC) has a zero tolerance policy on doping and we take every opportunity we can to strike a blow in the war on drugs in sport,” EOC President Patrick Hickey said.
“Baku 2015 was the inaugural edition of the European Games, but we knew that our anti-doping programme had to be of the highest standard from the outset.
“It is gratifying to know that the hard work of the EOC Medical Commission last summer is having a lasting positive impact in protecting the clean athletes of the world.”
The drug's Latvian founder Ivars Kalvins claimed in 2009 that meldonium was given to Soviet soldiers during the Afghanistan War in the 1980s in order to boost endurance.