Maria Sharapova is one of the biggest female sports stars in the world. And right now she’s in big trouble because of a drug called meldonium.
The five-time Grand Slam tennis champion admitted Monday to failing a drug test at the Australian Open, which booted her from competition. Now, Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche have all suspended ties with Sharapova as sponsors. The 28-year-old has been with Nike since she was 11.
What’s weird is that meldonium is a newly banned substance. In fact, Sharapova said she had been taking the drug since 2006 following advice from her family doctor.
So what’s the beef? Well, meldonium was legal, until the World Anti-Doping Agency officially banned it January 1.
Sharapova claimed she didn’t know about the new ban, failing to see the updated banned substance list in an email at the end of 2015.
“I received a letter on Dec. 22 from WADA, an email with changes happening for next year as well as reporting your whereabouts and a link to a button where you can press to see the prohibited items for 2016,” she said. “I did not look at that list.”
Sharapova also acknowledged why she was taking the drug:
“I was getting sick very often,” she said. “I had a deficiency in magnesium. I had irregular EKG results, and I had a family history of diabetes and there were signs of diabetes.”
So what is meldonium and why is it banned?
Although banned in the U.S., the drug comes from Latvia and was developed for heart patients. It is widely available without a prescription and comes cheap.
The drug aids blood flow for angina patients but athletes have also realized it can help their endurance and ability to recover from intense workouts.
WADA has started to see more of it in samples, believing it has performance-enhancing properties, hence the new ban. Meldonium is not FDA approved.
Also known as mildronate, it is typically prescribed for heart failure patients in some parts of Europe. It treats ischemia, or lack of blood flow. But when taken by athletes, meldonium may also help increase endurance performance, improve rehabilitation after exercise, protect against stress, and enhance the central nervous system, according to a 2015 study by German scientists.
Sharapova is also recovering from an injury so it’s hard telling when she will be able to return to the tennis court, whether due to a suspension or from health.
The Russian star is one of the highest paid female athletes on the planet, with earnings of more than $30 million last year alone.