Use of the recently-banned drug meldonium among top athletes is "alarmingly high," according to new research published online by the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Tennis player Maria Sharapova admitted earlier this week to taking meldonium, leading to a provisional ban, but researchers say the substance's use was common at the recent 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. Thirteen medallists and competition winners were taking the drug at the time of the games, says the report, and meldonium use was detected in competitors taking part in 15 of the 21 sports present.
The research is a compilation of results from doping tests at the Baku games, and information on drug use volunteered by athletes. It was carried out on the behalf of the European Olympic Committees, and was part of the body of data that led to the decision by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) to ban the drug on January 1st.
There is "significant under-declaration of meldonium use," say researchers
The researchers note that not all competitors at the Baku games were tested so "actual prevalence cannot be accurately determined." But of the sample of 662 athletes tested for meldonium, 66 (8.7 percent) were positive, compared to only 23 (3.0 percent) who declared their use of the drug. This, say the researchers, shows that there is "significant under-declaration of meldonium use by athletes."
Sharapova, a five times Grand Slam champion, tested positive for the substance at the Australia Open on January 26th — the same day she lost to Serena Williams in the Open's quarterfinals. She was provisionally suspended following the test, and her legal team are reportedly seeking a ban of less than a year from the sport. In a press conference earlier this week, Sharapova said that she was unaware of the drug's ban, and had been using it for years under a different name for health reasons.
"It is very important for you to understand that for 10 years this medicine was not on WADA's banned list and I had legally been taking the medicine for the past 10 years," said Sharapova, who is the highest-paid female athlete in the world. "But on January 1st the rules had changed and meldonium became a prohibited substance which I had not known. I failed the test and I take full responsibility for it. I made a huge mistake."