It involves taking a legal prescription drug that may improve performance, but hasn’t been banned by anti-doping authorities. And lots of athletes competing in the Rio Olympics will be taking advantage of this loophole, doping experts say.
“If it’s not banned, athletes will use it,” says Ronald Evans, director of the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute and an investigator for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Meldonium, which can improve blood flow, was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in January. So Sharapova’s admission in March means she’s not eligible to compete in Rio.
But the games are including many other athletes who took meldonium before the ban. The sports they’re competing in include tennis, swimming, running, cycling, rugby, rowing and even volleyball.
Since the ban, evidence of meldonium use has been found in tests of more than 100 athletes, according to WADA. But most of these athletes can still compete in the Olympics because levels of the drug were low enough that they might be left over from use that took place before the ban took effect.
Meldonium is just one of a group of prescription heart drugs that could help an endurance athlete gain an edge by improving blood flow, Evans says. “You improve blood flow, you improve oxygen getting to the muscles that you want,” he says. “Therefore, it’s good for performance.”
Meldonium was developed by a drug company in Latvia and has been available since the 1980s. Sharapova reports that she had been taking it for a decade before the ban. And a study of meldonium use at the 2015 European Games in Baku found the drug was used by athletes competing in 15 of 21 sports there.
It’s not clear how much advantage those athletes got from meldonium, says Don Catlin, an emeritus professor at UCLA …