“WADA says positive meldonium tests may be excused”

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Since it was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned substance list on Jan. 1 of this year, meldonium has produced positive samples in the drug tests of 172 athletes.

The first and most notable of these athletes was five-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova, who received a provisional ban from tennis’ governing body after testing positive for the substance during the Australian Open in January.

On Tuesday, though, WADA issued an official notice to national anti-doping agencies admitting it lacks a clear understanding of how long meldonium stays in one’s system, thus opening the door to potential amnesty for those claiming to have stopped using the drug before Jan. 1.

From the notice:

When a prohibited substance is detected, it is up to the athlete to establish the circumstances surrounding the entry of the substance into his or her body (including the timing of such entry), in order for the hearing panel to be in a position to assess the question of intent, fault and negligence, and to determine the appropriate consequences.
In the case of meldonium, there is currently a lack of clear scientific information on excretion times. For this reason, a hearing panel might justifiably find (unless there is specific evidence to the contrary) that an athlete who has established on the balance of probabilities that he or she ingested meldonium before 1 January 2016 could not reasonably have known or suspected that the meldonium would still be present in his or her body on or after 1 January 2016. In these circumstances, WADA considers that there may be grounds for no fault or negligence on the part of the athlete.

How this will affect Sharapova’s case is unclear. When she admitted in March to having used meldonium on and off for 10 years, she did not say in her defense that she’d stopped using the drug before Jan. 1.

Instead, she accepted responsibility for failing to thoroughly read the WADA’s updated banned-substance material, and blamed the oversight on the fact that she knew the drug by a different name (mildronate).

Sharapova’s lawyer, John Haggerty, argued that the fault lies with WADA for mishandling the meldonium ban.

“The fact that WADA felt compelled to issue this unusual statement now is proof of how poorly they handled issues relating to meldonium in 2015,” Haggerty said in a statement Wednesday. “Given the fact that scores of athletes have tested positive for taking what previously was a legal product, it’s clear WADA did not handle this properly last year and they’re trying to make up for it now.”

Sharapova is still awaiting her disciplinary hearing, which is expected to happen sometime in June.

“There is currently limited data available on excretion studies relating to meldonium; and, as such, several studies are currently being conducted involving WADA accredited laboratories, which WADA will share when available,” the agency said in a follow-up statement Wednesday. “Until such time, the notice provides guidance as to how organizations should manage meldonium cases within their respective jurisdictions, which may be to ‘pursue’ or ‘stay’ until further excretion research has been made available.”

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