How U.S. athletes are informed about WADA banned substances list

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BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Maria Sharapova‘s failure to check the new substances added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s banned list for 2016, and then testing positive for one of those new substances on Jan. 26, left some U.S. Olympians shaking their heads.

“I’ve seen people I know test positive. I’ve seen people I know where it could be intentional drug use, or it could be people who naively didn’t check the list,” said Kristin Armstrong, a two-time Olympic road cycling gold medalist. “It’s unfortunate they have to learn the hard way.”

Every Jan. 1, WADA updates its list of prohibited substances for the calendar year.

WADA announced the 2016 list last September, ample time for athletes to adjust if they were taking substances that would be changed from legal to illegal starting Jan. 1.

U.S. athletes were additionally informed of the updated banned list by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in the fall and by their national governing bodies.

“[USADA and USA Swimming] are constantly sending us lists of updated substances that have either been approved or disapproved,” two-time Olympic swimmer Elizabeth Beisel said. “We are constantly in the know.”

Meldonium, the newly banned heart medication that Sharapova and other Russian and non-Russian Olympic medalists have tested positive for this year, was specifically mentioned in another early January reminder to U.S. athletes from USADA.

“As an example of a 2016 update, it is important to note that there have been new substances or clarifications added to the Prohibited List in various categories, including, but not limited to, meldonium (Mildronate) and insulin-mimetics, including all insulin-receptor agonists,” the January USADA message said.

Of all the athletes announced as testing positive for meldonium this year, none are American.

“Education is a key component of any effective anti-doping program and that includes updating athletes on new inclusions to the prohibited list,” USADA said in a statement. “It’s really important to us that every athlete has the tools and knowledge they need to make smart decisions about their career, their health, and their legacy.”

Meldonium is not FDA approved.

“As soon as you hear that anything’s dropped [onto the prohibited list], your agent, your coach also keeps you in mind with what’s going on,” said Dawn Harper-Nelson, a two-time Olympic 100m hurdles medalist. “When you find out those things, you immediately go to your medicine cabinet. You have to go through the list and even plug it into Google search. Just say what medicines have this in it. And then you make your adjustment from there.”

Athletes across all sports in the USADA registered drug-testing pool must also complete an online tutorial called Athlete’s Advantage before Dec. 31.

“You have to watch, and you have to take a test at the end to say that you watched this and you actually learned,” Harper-Nelson said. “They’ll ask you certain things, like what’s the new drug on the list, when do you have to register by and those types of things. So they try and have a really good regimen.”

Olympic 200m champion Allyson Felix is so confident that she takes zero substances that could be added to the banned list that she doesn’t “really pay attention to” alerts and notices with WADA banned list updates.

Athletes can apply for a therapeutic use exemption (TUE) to take meldonium for required medical reasons without it being a doping violation. USADA declined to say if any U.S. athlete has done so, and if so, if it had been granted.

U.S. Olympians and Olympic hopefuls in badminton, cycling, shooting, swimming and track and field said this week they hadn’t heard of meldonium before Sharapova’s admission Monday.

“Sounds like it’s on the periodic table, though,” Olympic 800m runner Alysia Montaño said.

Four-time U.S. Olympic diver Troy Dumais said he had heard of meldonium before this week, as he has studied medicine when not training.

“I don’t know enough about it, but I’ve heard about it,” he said.

MORE: What is meldonium?