Russian athletes’ systemic use of the banned performance-enhancer meldonium came into sharper focus this week, when the country’s sports media outlets reported that Russia’s under-18 hockey team would be replaced by the under-17 team at the upcoming world championships after a number of the under-18 players reportedly tested positive for the drug, which was banned this year by the World Anti-Doping Agency.
And the hockey team isn’t the only one to see sudden wholesale change this week. According to the New York Times, the Russian men’s curling team was switched out the day before the world championships began in Switzerland and three players for Gazprom-Yugra, a men’s professional volleyball team, were removed from the team at the European championships. The coaches of both teams denied meldonium was involved, however.
With the Olympics just months away, the team shuffles and growing number of positive tests for meldonium by other Russian athletes have raised further questions about the country’s entire athletic program.
Meldonium first appeared on the sporting world’s radar in early March, when Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova announced she had tested positive for the drug at the Australian Open in January. She said she had been taking meldonium since 2006 for magnesium deficiency and irregular EKG results and was unaware that WADA had banned its use beginning Jan. 1. The drug is nominally used to treat heart disease and other chronic conditions. However, it was developed by the Soviet military as a performance-enhancer for its soldiers during that country’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Since January, 158 other Russian athletes have tested positive for meldonium, including Semion Elistratov, an Olympic short-track speedskating gold medalist, and Yuliya Efimova, a four-time swimming world champion. Reuters reported Thursday that another 40 Russian athletes are under investigation for meldonium use and that “several hundred” Russian athletes took the drug before it was banned.
Nikolai Kuksenkov, Russia’s top male gymnast, withdrew from the national championships earlier this week after a failed doping test. Kuksenkov’s coach said he had not taken meldonium since August, raising questions about how long the drug stays in an athlete’s system. The Latvian creator of meldonium has said that the drug can remain in an athlete’s system for months, but a forensic and analytical scientist told the New York Times that traces of the drug should disappear from a user’s body within one to two weeks of the last dosage.
Because of the confusion over how long meldonium stays in an athlete’s system, biathlon’s governing body announced Wednesday that it would delay rulings based on positive meldonium tests, according to the New York Times. Biathlon, a winter sport combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, typically is dominated by Russians. However, concerns about the drug’s staying power have not engendered much sympathy from WADA, which gave sporting federations three months’ notice that meldonium would be banned starting Jan. 1, the Times reports.
Meldonium is readily available over-the-counter in Russia and other Eastern European nations, and sales doubled after Sharapova’s announcement. The drug has not been approved for sale in the United States.