MOSCOW (Reuters) - A first Russian track-and-field athlete has tested positive for the banned drug meldonium, heaping further pressure on the country’s athletics federation as it fights to be readmitted to international competition in time for the Olympic Games.
Thirteen Russian sportsmen and women have now been caught using meldonium since it was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency on Jan. 1, including world tennis star Maria Sharapova and speed skating Olympic gold-medalist Semion Elistratov.
Despite warnings from sports officials that a number of other Russian competitors could have taken the substance, Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told Reuters last week meldonium had nothing to do with athletics in his country.
But 26-year-old sprinter and 2013 European Championship silver-medalist Nadezhda Kotlyarova has now tested positive for the substance, Russian news agencies reported on Sunday.
“The concentration of the substance which was found is very small - 25 nanograms. I stopped taking this stuff long before it was banned,” R-Sport news agency quoted Kotlyarova as saying.
“I consider myself innocent, we are victims of circumstance.”
Kotlyarova’s positive test will undermine efforts by the Russian Athletics Federation (ARAF) to prove it is compliant with anti-doping standards after being suspended from international competition last year following revelations of wide-spread cheating and corruption.
Unless ARAF can get the suspension lifted, Russian athletes will miss the Olympics starting in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 5 - a humiliating blow to a country that has long drawn pride and prestige from its record as a sporting superpower.
Commenting on the timing of her test result, Kotlyarova told R-Sport: “It’s a real shame, because this is an Olympic year, and this is how they knock people off their tracks.”
The International Association of Athletics Federations has said Russia has “significant work to do” before it is reinstated, and a final decision will be taken in May.
Since former world tennis number one Sharapova admitted using meldonium, at least 100 athletes from multiple countries have tested positive for the drug, which is used to treat diabetes and low magnesium and has been linked to increased sporting performance.
But meldonium is particularly popular in Russia and the former Soviet Union, having been invented in Latvia and used to help Soviet soldiers fight at high altitude in the 1980s.
ARAF says it repeatedly warned athletes and coaches not to take meldonium before it was banned, but Kotlyarova’s trainer said he was not given all the necessary information.
“No one told us how long this drug remains in the body,” the state-owned TASS news agency quoted coach Sergei Vorobyev as saying. Reuters was unable to reach ARAF or Mutko for comment.
(This story has been refiled to corrects typo in ‘silver-medallist’, fourth paragraph)
Editing by Mark Trevelyan