Maria Sharapova failed drug test at Australian Open, Olympics in doubt

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Maria Sharapova‘s tennis career and Olympic hopes are in jeopardy, and she claims it’s all because she failed to click on a link in an email that would have told her to stop taking meldonium.

The five-time major champion says she failed a doping test at the Australian Open in January for the little-known drug, which became a banned substance under the WADA code this year. The former world No. 1 took full responsibility for her mistake when she made the announcement at a news conference Monday in Los Angeles.

Sharapova could face a lengthy ban from the International Tennis Federation, possibly ending her season and preventing her from competing for Russia at the Rio Olympics.

“I know that with this, I face consequences,” Sharapova said. “I don’t want to end my career this way, and I really hope I will be given another chance to play this game.”

The 28-year-old Sharapova received notice last week that she tested positive for meldonium, a blood flow-promoting drug she has been taking for 10 years for numerous health issues. Meldonium was banned because it aids oxygen uptake and endurance, and several athletes across international sports have already been caught using it.

Sharapova and all players were notified of the changes in the WADA banned substances list in December. Sharapova claimed she simply missed the change, neglecting to click on the link.

“I take great responsibility and professionalism in my job, and I made a huge mistake,” Sharapova said. “I let my fans down. I let the sport down that I’ve been playing since the age of 4, that I love so deeply.”

MORE: What is Meldonium?

Meldonium, also known as mildronate, is a Latvian-manufactured drug popular for fighting heart disease in former Soviet Union countries. Meldonium treats ischemia, or lack of blood flow, but can be taken in large doses as a performance-enhancer.

Sharapova said she began taking meldonium for “several health issues I had back in 2006,” including a magnesium deficiency, regular influenza, “irregular” heart test results and early indications of diabetes, of which she has a family history.

Sharapova’s penalties could range from a multiyear ban to a minimal sanction with no suspension if officials believe she made an honest mistake. WADA President Craig Reedie told The Associated Press that any athlete found guilty of using meldonium would normally face a one-year suspension.

The ITF’s anti-doping program announced in a statement that Sharapova will be provisionally suspended starting this weekend while her case is examined. WADA spokesman Ben Nichols said the organization won’t comment until the ITF makes a decision.

Sharapova and her attorney, John J. Haggerty, declined to say where Sharapova was put on the drug or where she gets it now, citing the ongoing process with the ITF. Meldonium is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“I understand the drug is sold particularly in Eastern Europe,” Reedie told the AP in a telephone interview. “You can almost get it over the counter. For stronger versions, you might need a prescription. There has been a whole rash of these cases since the 1st of January when it appeared on the banned list. This might not be happening if athletes would be taking more care of the things that are on the list.”

Reedie said meldonium can be “very strong medicine.”

MORE: Sharapova loses Nike, more sponsors

Although she has lived in the U.S. since childhood, Sharapova won a silver medal and served as Russia’s flag-bearer at the London Olympics four years ago.

“I think it’s all nonsense,” Shamil Tarpshchev, the president of the Russian Tennis Federation, told the state Tass agency. “Athletes take what they’re given by physiotherapists and doctors. I think that Sharapova will play at the Olympics anyway. But we have to see how events develop.”

Two Ukrainian biathletes and Russian cyclist Eduard Vorganov have tested positive for meldonium since it was banned. Earlier Monday, Russia’s Ekaterina Bobrova, a European champion ice dancer, told local media she had tested positive for meldonium.

Sharapova said she took the test shortly before she lost to Serena Williams in the Australian Open quarterfinals on Jan. 26. Sharapova hasn’t played since then while recovering from a forearm injury, and she had already dropped out of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, which begins this week.

“She is very organized and she takes her career very seriously,” Haggerty told the AP. “When she first started to take this back in 2006, she made sure it was approved, that it wasn’t on the banned list, and checked in future years. Because she had taken it for so many years, and it was OK year after year, it just got off the radar.

“When she got the letter, she was shocked, completely stunned. She takes great pride in her integrity and how she approaches the game, and she immediately wanted to come forward and take responsibility.”

Sharapova is one of the greatest players of her generation, with 35 career singles titles and over $36 million in career earnings. She is currently No. 7 in the WTA rankings after playing just three tournaments and the Fed Cup final in the last eight months since Wimbledon due to injuries.

Sharapova is thought to be the world’s highest-paid female athlete due to endorsement deals and her extensive business ventures, including a high-profile candy line, Sugarpova. Forbes estimated her earnings at $29.5 million for 2015.

“I am very saddened to hear this news about Maria,” WTA CEO Steve Simon said in a statement. “Maria is a leader and I have always known her to be a woman of great integrity. Nevertheless, as Maria acknowledged, it is every player’s responsibility to know what they put in their body and to know if it is permissible.”

Sharapova became a 17-year-old Wimbledon champion in 2004. She ascended to No. 1 in 2005, won the U.S. Open in 2006 and added the Australian Open in 2008 before completing the career Grand Slam with French Open titles in 2012 and 2014.

But Sharapova has struggled with injuries throughout her career, repeatedly forcing her to take extended breaks from competition. She had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, forcing her to change her serving motion, and has struggled with hamstring injuries.

Sharapova was born in Russia before moving to Florida. She lives primarily in Los Angeles now.

The star had a moment of levity when she acknowledged the incorrect assumptions about the reason she had called a news conference.

“If I was going to announce my retirement, it wouldn’t be in a downtown Los Angeles hotel with this fairly ugly carpet,” she said.

MORE: Serena Williams considers Olympic mixed doubles

Caster Semenya allowed to race 800m at Pre Classic

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Caster Semenya has been switched from the 3000m to the 800m at next week’s Pre Classic, marking her first scheduled 800m since a Swiss Supreme Court ruling allowed her to race her Olympic gold-medal distance while she appeals a new IAAF testosterone rule.

“Caster’s representation requested that she be moved from the 3,000 meters (where she was originally entered) to the 800 meters, and we are happy to comply,” Prefontaine Classic meet director Tom Jordan said in a statement, confirming a Reuters report.

NBC Sports airs live Pre Classic coverage on June 30 from 4-6 p.m. ET.

Semenya, the two-time Olympic 800m champion, was originally entered in the 3000m because the rule bars her from races between 400m and the mile unless she takes testosterone-suppressing measures, under which she would be allowed to return to those distances late this year. Semenya refuses to take those measures.

A Swiss Supreme Court ruling two weeks ago lifted the restriction for Semenya — but not other athletes — while her appeal is pending. The IAAF has until Monday to respond to the court before a ruling could be made. A resolution could still be months away, with Semenya possibly able to race until that day comes.

Semenya has won 30 straight 800m races dating to 2015, including the Rio Olympics and 2017 World Championships. All three Rio Olympic 800m medalists have said they are affected by the new rule capping testosterone in women’s races between the 400m and mile.

That meant none raced at Diamond League stops in Stockholm and Rabat, Morocco, earlier this month. Last Sunday’s Rabat meet offered Semenya a late invite, more than a week after her restriction was lifted, but Semenya said it was too late for her to travel in time to race.

American record holder Ajeé Wilson won the Stockholm 800m without any of the Olympic medalists in the field.

MORE: Caster Semenya to IAAF: Focus on dopers, not us

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Geraint Thomas crashes out of Tour de France prep race

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BASEL, Switzerland (AP) — Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas crashed in a cycling race, days after teammate Chris Froome was involved in a season-ending accident in France.

Team INEOS said Thomas should be fine to start the Tour de France on July 6 despite having to drop out of the fourth stage of the nine-day Tour de Suisse race in Switzerland.

“Clearly it’s frustrating and a small setback for my Tour de France preparations, but there’s still plenty of time before we start in Brussels in a few weeks’ time,” Thomas said, according to the team.

The team says on Twitter that Thomas “was alert and speaking to the team after the crash and will be taken to hospital for checks.”

Thomas had a ripped jersey and cuts on his back and shoulder after hitting the road with about 18 miles left in the stage. He was in eighth place, 28 seconds behind race leader Peter Sagan.

Thomas won the 2018 Tour after Froome won four times between 2013 and 2017.

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

MORE: NBC Sports launches Cycling Pass for 2019-20 season

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