By Tia Ko
Maria Sharapova, former world number one, revealed at press conference on Monday in LA that she failed a drug test after her run during the Australian Open back in January. She tested positive for meldonium (also known as mildronate), a drug that was newly banned beginning January 1, 2016 and one that she had been taking for the past ten years. The drug was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list “…[B]ecause of evidence of its use by athletes with the intention of enhancing performance."
The drug was designed to treat ischemia, a condition where there is a reduction in blood supply to body tissue. Patients with diabetes and heart-related diseases also use it as it increases the flow of oxygen to muscles and organs. Meldonium is mainly produced and used in Eastern Europe and according to Latvian manufacturers, when prescribed for medical use, it’s only used for four to six weeks; a much shorter period than Maria’s ten year treatment.
Maria said that she took the drug for a decade because of her magnesium deficiency and family history of diabetes. She was unaware that meldonium was newly banned despite receiving numerous notifications from the WTA and ITF and accepts “full responsibility” for taking the substance. Some of the performance enhancing effects of meldonium include: decreased levels of lactate in blood, increased levels of glycogen in cells during long-lasting exercise, improved heart activity, increased physical work capabilities, and increased rate of recovery.
As a result of her announcement, Nike ended her eight-year sponsorship contract that was renewed in 2010 stating, “"We are saddened and surprised by the news about Maria Sharapova. We have decided to suspend our relationship with Maria while the investigation continues. We will continue to monitor the situation." It was her biggest endorsement deal equaling $8.75 million per year.
Swiss watchmaker TAG Heuer also ended ties on Tuesday saying, “Maria Sharapova was under contract with TAG Heuer until December 31, 2015. We had been in talks to extend our collaboration. In view of the current situation, the Swiss watch brand has suspended negotiations and has decided not to renew the contract.” The contract was worth approximately $2.8 million.
A third partner, Porsche, also stated that it would wait until further details are released so that it can analyze the situation; in the meantime, however, the luxury car company will not be pursuing future activities. Other sponsors including Head, Evian, Avon Products and American Express have yet to comment on their relationship with Maria.
On Wednesday, Maria said in a statement on Facebook, “In this moment, I am so proud to call you my fans. Within hours of my announcement, you showed me support and loyalty, which I could only expect to hear when someone would be at the top of their profession. I wanted to let you know that your wonderful words put a smile on my face. I'd like to play again and hope to have the chance to do so. Your messages give me great encouragement.” Fans around the world expressed their support for the Russian player with the hashtags #IStandWithMaria and #LetMariaPlay.
Beginning March 12, 2016 Maria will be provisionally suspended from playing professional tennis. A two year suspension is the minimum ruling for unintentional drug use and four years is the maximum for intentional use.