Maria Sharapova
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WADA: Athletes may be able to avoid suspensions for meldonium

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LONDON (AP) — In a dramatic change that could lead to numerous doping cases being thrown out, athletes who tested positive for meldonium may be able to avoid sanctions because of a lack of scientific evidence on how long the recently banned drug stays in the system.

The World Anti-Doping Agency said Wednesday provisional suspensions can be lifted if it is determined that an athlete took meldonium before it was placed on the list of banned substances on Jan. 1.

“It’s not an amnesty as such,” WADA President Craig Reedie told The Associated Press.

WADA said 172 positive tests for meldonium have been recorded so far in various sports and countries — many in Russia — since the drug was prohibited. The highest profile case involves Maria Sharapova, who announced last month that she tested positive during the Australian Open in January.

Some athletes who have tested positive have claimed meldonium remained in their systems for months even though they stopped using it last year. Sharapova did not specify when she had last used meldonium.

The Latvian-made drug, which is typically prescribed for heart conditions, was widely used as a supplement by athletes in Eastern European countries. The drug increases blood flow, which improves exercise capacity by carrying more oxygen to the muscles.

In a notice to national anti-doping agencies, WADA acknowledged that “there is a lack of clear scientific information” on how long it takes for meldonium to clear the system.

While several studies are currently being carried out by WADA-accredited laboratories, preliminary results show that long-term excretion of meldonium can take weeks or months, it said.

As a result, it is possible that athletes who took meldonium before Jan. 1 “could not reasonably have known or suspected” that the drug would still be present in their bodies after that date, WADA said.

“In these circumstances WADA considers that there may be grounds for no fault or negligence on the part of the athlete,” the statement said.

Reedie said the notice was sent out to all national anti-doping bodies on Tuesday. It was released first publicly by Russia’s anti-doping agency on Wednesday before being posted on WADA’s website.

“It is designed to explain the science that we know,” Reedie told the AP in a telephone interview. “The issue that it deals with is the time this drug takes to come out of the system. It’s an attempt to clarify the many questions that we’ve been asked.”

In a separate statement, WADA stressed that meldonium remains a banned substance and athletes face the rule of strict liability whereby they are responsible for any prohibited drug found in their body.

“Meldonium is a particular substance, which has created an unprecedented situation and therefore warranted additional guidance for the anti-doping community,” Reedie said.

The Russian sports ministry and national Olympic committee welcomed the WADA statement, and the country’s officials suggested there could be a mass amnesty of Russian athletes.

Russian tennis federation head Shamil Tarpishchev told the R-Sport agency he hoped that Sharapova would be able to play at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in August, while the head of the Russian swimming federation suggested there could be a swift return to competition for suspended World champion Yulia Efimova.

“In no way does this serve as an ‘amnesty’ for athletes that are asserted to have committed an anti-doping rule violation,” WADA spokesman Ben Nichols told the AP in an email. “Rather, it serves as guidance for how anti-doping organizations should assess the particular circumstances of each individual case under their jurisdiction.”

The meldonium cases have no bearing on the ongoing suspension of Russia’s track and field team following a WADA commission report into what it called state-sponsored doping.

Sharapova, a winner of five Grand Slam titles, said she had been taking meldonium for medical reasons over a 10-year period and had not seen a WADA notice last year that the drug would be banned starting in 2016.

Sharapova was provisionally suspended by the International Tennis Federation pending a disciplinary hearing.

“We can confirm that the case is ongoing and that there will be a hearing,” ITF spokesman Nick Imison told the AP on Wednesday. “I have seen the statement from WADA and obviously any ongoing cases will take that information from WADA, but it won’t affect the fact that there is an ongoing case.”

Sharapova’s lawyer said WADA’s statement was “proof of how poorly” the agency handled meldonium issues in 2015.

“The notice underscores why so many legitimate questions have been raised concerning WADA’s process in banning meldonium as well as the manner in which they notified players,” attorney John Haggerty said in a statement. “This notice should have been widely distributed in 2015, when it would have made a difference in the lives of many athletes.”

WADA said prosecution of meldonium cases can be “stayed” and provisional suspensions lifted if the concentration of the drug in the system is between 1 and 15 micrograms per millileter and the test was carried out before March 1, or if the level is below 1 microgram per millileter and the doping control was conducted after March 1. In both cases, the drug could still be in the athletes’ system from before Jan. 1.

The agency said doping cases should be pursued, however, in the case of athletes who admit having taken meldonium on or after Jan. 1. The same applies to cases where the concentration of the drug is above 15 micrograms per millileter and where the level is between 1 and 15 and the drug test was after March 1.

MORE: Sharapova still in Russia’s Olympic plans

40 years ago today: Jimmy Carter lays plan for Olympic boycott

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On Jan. 20, 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter said he would not support sending a U.S. team to the Moscow Olympics later that summer if the Soviet Union did not withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

Carter detailed his stance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” airing that Sunday. A transcript:

Bill Monroe: Assuming the Soviets do not pull out of Afghanistan any time soon, do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics, and if not, what are the alternatives?

Carter: No. Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position that unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or canceled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan — within a month — I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics. It’s very important for the world to realize how serious a threat the Soviets’ invasion of Afghanistan is. I do not want to inject politics into the Olympics, and I would personally favor the establishment of a permanent Olympic site for both the Summer and the Winter Games. In my opinion, the most appropriate permanent site for the Summer Games would be Greece. This will be my own position, and I have asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to take this position to the International Olympic Committee, and I would hope that as many nations as possible would support this basic position. One hundred and four nations voted against the Soviet invasion and called for their immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan in the United Nations, and I would hope as many of those as possible would support the position I’ve just outlined to you.

Monroe: Mr. President, if a substantial number of nations does not support the U.S. position, would not that just put the U.S. in an isolated position without doing much damage to the Soviet Union?

Carter: Regardless of what other nations might do, I would not favor the sending of an American Olympic team to Moscow while the Soviet invasion troops are in Afghanistan.

Three days later, Carter said in his State of the Union address, “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

The Soviets did not withdraw troops.

Though Carter did not have the authority to order a boycott, the U.S. Olympic Committee did decide on April 12 not to send a team.

The U.S. was among more than 60 nations that were invited to the Moscow Games and did not participate (for various reasons). Other notable absences included Canada, West Germany, Japan and China.

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MORE: Japanese athlete’s bid to become oldest Olympian in history still alive

With four former champions in the mix, who can claim U.S. Championships pairs’ title?

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There have been four different U.S. pairs’ champions in the past four years. All four of those teams are in the field at this week’s U.S. Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. With that in mind, who could get the nod to compete at the world championships in March?

The U.S. has two spots to fill, thanks to the efforts of Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, who finished ninth at last year’s worlds.

Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier had the best fall of any U.S. pair, winning two bronze medals on the Grand Prix Series. Denney and Frazier finished with silver medals at last year’s national championships, too. The team has previous experience at the world championships (2015: 12th; 2017: 20th).

Cain-Gribble and LeDuc won the national title last year after a season that was nearly sidelined by Cain-Gribble’s concussion in December 2018. As the solo U.S. representatives at the world championships, they succeeded in earning back two world berths for 2020.

This season, they won two B-level competitions and finished fourth and fifth at their Grand Prix assignments. LeDuc said last week that despite their win at Golden Spin in December, “there was a little bit of room for improvement, which is exactly what we want from a competition going into nationals.”

“We feel like we’ve improved a lot as far as what we’re able to take on mentally because we know that this is going to be an intense week,” Cain-Gribble said. “We’re prepared for that. We’ve never had to do this before, where we’re coming in and we’re already the reigning champions. We’ve never come in with that title before. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about it and what that feeling is, but overall their main thing was, ‘Be prepared. Prepare yourself beyond what you can even imagine. When you get there, just go on autopilot and do your thing.’”

PyeongChang Olympic team event bronze medalists Alexa Scimeca Knierim and Chris Knierim haven’t been in top form since the Games. Later in 2018, they split from short-lived coach Aljona Savchenko in Germany and moved to California.

They finished an all-time low of seventh at last year’s nationals and were not assigned to any events later in the season. In their off-season, Chris underwent wrist surgery. The couple also added Rafael Arutunian to their coaching team to address their jumping abilities. Their season consisted of a silver medal at a B-level competition, followed by two Grand Prix assignments where they finished fourth and seventh.

“We feel that many people probably have kind of written us off, because we’re an old married couple and we’re kind of labeled ‘can’t get it together,’” Scimeca Knierim said after finishing fourth at Skate Canada this fall. “That’s almost an advantage, because I feel like for so long, we were considered the front-runners. I still believe we are. We’re trying to show we can get it together.”

The last time the Knierims competed at a nationals in Greensboro, in 2015, they won the first of their two titles. That year, they notched their highest placement (seventh) across five total trips to the world championships.

Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea won their national title in 2016 and were also sent on their only trip to the world championships where they finished 13th. In 2017, Kayne underwent knee surgery, but they returned to the national podium in 2018 and won silver. Last year, they finished fourth after a disastrous free skate.

This season, they collected a silver medals and a fourth place finish at two B-level competitions as well as a pair of sixth-place finishes on the Grand Prix.

MORE: 2020 U.S. Figure Skating Championships TV, live stream schedule

As a reminder, you can watch the events from the 2019-20 figure skating season live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. Go to NBCsports.com/gold/figure-skating to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season. NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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