Athletes, doctors or officials: who pushed ‘meldonium’ use?

Russia's Maria Sharapova pauses during a press conference, ahead of the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016.

Russia's Maria Sharapova pauses during a press conference, ahead of the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016.

In the wake of the Maria Sharapova doping scandal, several leading Russian athletes may be disqualified from international events for use of the drug ‘Meldonium’, which has been banned by WADA since January 2016. Russian officials and athletics insiders disagree on who should take responsibility for the latest doping debacle to engulf Russian sports.

The sensational doping cloud that has surrounded Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova over her use of the recently banned substance meldonium could result in more, unwanted repercussions for Russian sports, with a number of top athletes at risk of being disqualified for four months to four years.

Meldonium, the primary element of the mildronate drug, was developed in 1975 by Latvian professor Ivan Kalvinshem. It was included in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) blacklist on January 1, 2016, but many leading Russian athletes ignored the ban.

Olympic champions Ekaterina Bobrova (figure skater), Semion Elistratov (short-track speed skater), world champion Pavel Kulizhnikov (speed skater), European champion Ekaterina Konstantinova (short-track) and two-time Universiade winner Alexander Markin (volleyball) have also tested positive for meldonium.

Were the doctors negligent?

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has blamed the current doping scandal on doctors and coaches."We explained everything to everyone half a year ago. The federations, the coaches and the doctors must be more responsible," said the minister in an interview with R-Sport.

Mutko also admitted that the national team doctors may not have read the updated list of banned drugs. Mutko claimed that the medical staff do not have time to follow WADA's updates because of the "enormous amount of work" they have to do with the athletes.

Professor Andrei Smolensky, director of the National Research Institute of Athletic Medicine at the Russian State University of Physical Education, Sport, Youth and Tourism (SCOLIPE), which has prepared numerous Soviet and Russian Olympic champions, agrees with Mutko.

"The doctors of the athletics federations are to blame for the story with meldonium,” he said. “They are not always careful in their responsibilities. WADA has severe rules that must unquestionably be followed.”

Smolensky said meldonium remains in the blood for “up to three months,” which is why the athletes should have stopped taking the drug in October.

“Our doctors did not have the situation under control," he said.

A black mark for officials?

Sports officials may also have to pay for the doping scandal, Dmitri Nossov, a State Duma deputy and judo bronze medallist at the 2004 Olympics, insisted.

"Not one professional athlete will start taking something without his or her doctor’s advice and it is the federation directors that must control the doctors' activities," said Nossov.

Only by dismissing the directors of the federations affected by the scandal will everyone begin to think seriously about the doping issue and move to stop it, Nossov opined.

Alisher Aminov, vice president of the International Foundation of Support for Legal Initiatives, believes that Sports Minister Mutko should be the one to resign.

"The athletes were given banned drugs recommended by one centre that was employing doctors and receiving instructions from Minister Mutko, the individual who more than anyone is interested in medals and victories,” said Aminov.

“The most effective way to overcome this dishonesty in Russian sport is to launch an independent public inquiry with the involvement of international organizations. Mutko must temporarily be removed from office until the end of the inquiry," he said.

Is meldonium really dangerous?

At the same time, discussions are still raging in Russia about whether or not WADA's decision to ban meldonium is justified. Former Russian Olympic team doctor Zurab Ordzhonikidze thinks that the use of meldonium cannot be considered doping.

"It does not have a stimulating effect. It is a normal cardio-protector. If WADA places mildronate on its blacklist, then according to this logic, even drinking water can be considered illegal. Water is also, in a sense, a cardio-protector," said Ordzhonikidze.

Athletics doctor Alexander Yardoshvili, who has in the past collaborated with the Russian national soccer team, and the CSKA and Lokomotiv Moscow clubs, does not agree with Ordzhonikidze.

"Mildronate reduces the amount of creatinine and synthesizes fatty acids. As a result, oxygen is freed that begins to actively nourish the zones that need it,” said Yardoshvili in an interview with the publication. “Also, the drug produces magnesium in the organism and this element improves the activity of bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles, the whole musculoskeletal system," he said.




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