12 March, 2016
"A few days ago I received a letter from the ITF (International Tennis Federation) that I had failed a drug test at the Australian Open. I did fail the test and I take full responsibility for it."
That is Maria Sharapova. The Russian tennis player announced that she failed a test for performance-enhancing drugs at the Australian Open earlier this year.
Sharapova said she tested positive for a drug called meldonium, also known as Mildronate. She did not know meldonium is another name for Mildronate. And she did not know the drug was added to the banned list.
Sharapova said she took the drug for 10 years to help with long-term health problems. She did not say how often she used the drug, but doctors said a normal cycle lasts for six weeks, and it could be used two to three times per year.
What is meldonium?
The inventor of the drug is Ivars Kalvins of Latvia. The drug is mostly used in Russia and Eastern Europe. ABC News reported soldiers from the former Soviet Union had used it during the war with Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Kalvins said the drug, also known as Mildronate, does not make athletes perform better. He said it protects the heart and other muscles from breaking down under stress.
"You see, Mildronate is not a doping. And the big difference or the great difference is - all the dopings what the sportsmen and athletes are using, they are damaging their health in the future perspective. The Mildronate is the opposite of this. It allows the people to keep their health in case of overloading, and this is not the same as increase of performance."
The World Anti-Doping Association (known as WADA) added meldonium to the list of banned drugs at the beginning of this year. It announced the change in September 2015, giving athletes who may have been using it time to stop.
Craig Reedie is the president of WADA. He said adding meldonium to the banned list was a long process.
"This is actually a sort of almost three-, four-year process. We had research done on this drug by the Partnership for Clean Competition in the United States. They came back with clear recommendations that it had performance-enhancing characteristics and was being used for that purpose."
Reedie says athletes had enough time to learn about the new drugs on the list. "It's up to the athletes to play by the rules," he says.
But several athletes like Sharapova are getting caught. Since the beginning of the year, athletes in sports like speed skating, figure skating, wrestling and distance running have been caught for using it. Experts say news of more athletes using the drug will come soon.
The New York Times reported seven Russian athletes have tested positive for meldonium since Sharapova's announcement.
A post on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine said 13 medal winners and 66 total athletes were using meldonium at the European Games in 2015.
What's next for Sharapova?
When Sharapova called the press conference, most people said they thought she might announce her retirement. No one thought she was in trouble for failing a drug test.
Sharapova became a professional tennis player at 13. She will turn 29 in April. She won her first major championship at Wimbledon in 2004 by defeating Serena Williams.
Most people agree Sharapova has it all: trophies from multiple championships, good looks and lots of money.
During her career, she won all four of the world's biggest tennis championships: the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. She is one of the sport's best players, winning over 30 tournaments in her career. She is ranked seventh in the world.
She is also recognizable for her 1.88 meter height (6 feet, 2 inches), and her long blond hair. She looks like a fashion model and many companies hire her to promote their products.
For years, Sharapova appeared in commercials for the athletic shoe company Nike, the watchmaker Tag Heuer and the automaker Porsche, just to name three.
Forbes magazine said Sharapova is the richest female athlete. She earned almost $30 million in 2015.
It looks like all that income might come to an end. Nike, Tag Heuer and Porsche said they would no longer pay Sharapova to appear in commercials or at events on their behalf.
Will she be suspended?
The International Tennis Federation (known as the ITF) suspended Sharapova starting on March 12. The length of the suspension is not known, but it could be as long as four years.
When the suspension is announced, Sharapova will appeal. She will explain her health problems to a panel, and ask for what is called a therapeutic use exemption. The ITF website explains that an exemption can only be granted if a drug does not produce performance enhancement and there is no alternative treatment.
Sharapova already has supporters who think she should get credit for being honest about her mistake.
Serena Williams is one of Sharapova's biggest competitors. The two have played a lot of matches. Williams wins almost all the time – 18 times in a row, in fact. But as two of the best players in the world they are not always friendly.
But before a recent match in New York, Williams said Sharapova did a good thing by discussing her failed drug test right away.
"As Maria said, she's ready to take full responsibility and I think that showed a lot of courage and a lot of heart, and I think she's always showed courage and heart in everything that she's done and this is no different."
Sharapova says she does not want to end her career this way.
"I know that with this I face consequences. And I don't want to end my career this way. And I really hope that I will be given another chance to play this game."
I'm Dan Friedell.
Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Do you think Maria Sharapova will be able to play tennis again soon? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
performance-enhancing drugs – n. drugs used by athletic competitiors without permission that give them an unfair edge
stress – n. physical force or pressure
characteristics – adj. showing the special qualities of a person, thing, or group
therapeutic use exemption – n. permission to use something that may be banned because of health concerns
alternative – n. something that can be chosen instead of something else; a choice
allow – v. to permit; to let something happen
trophy – n. an object that is given as a prize for winning a game or event
blond – n. of a yellow or very light brown color