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

He controversially beat Roy Jones Jr. for Olympic gold. Now he wishes he had silver.

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The last South Korean boxer to win an Olympic gold medal has spent the past 32 years wishing it was a silver.

Entering the men’s light-middleweight final against an American teenager named Roy Jones Jr. on the last day of the 1988 Games in Seoul, Park Si-Hun fantasized about etching his name in the pantheon of South Korean sports legends in front of a delirious home crowd.

He did get his gold three rounds later, but not the way he envisioned.

Park’s win by a 3-2 decision remains as one of the most controversial moments in boxing history, as Jones had seemed to dominate the fight from start to finish.

The outcome drew instant criticism and disdain, even from South Koreans, who heckled Park at the podium and bombarded local TV stations with phone calls protesting that the country’s home advantage had gone too far.

Jones went on to have a phenomenal professional career, retiring in 2018 with a 66-9 record that cemented him as one of the sport’s all-time greats. He is now a boxing commentator and is planning to fight Mike Tyson in an exhibition of retired greats later this year.

Deeply shaken and scarred, Park quietly retired at the end of the Seoul Games and spent the next 13 years as a middle- and high-school teacher in a rural seaside town before making a return to competitive boxing as a coach.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Park said his dream was to see one of his boxers pull off a convincing gold-winning performance in a future Olympics, which he said would possibly give him some sense of redemption and closure.

After three decades, it still stings that his gold is seen as a smudge on the image of the Games his country still glorifies as its coming-out party to the world.

“There’s hardened resentment built up in me that I will probably carry for the rest of my life,” said Park, 54, who now coaches the small municipal boxing team of Seogwipo City in the island province of Jeju.

“I didn’t want my hand to be raised (after the fight with Jones), but it did go up, and my life became gloomy because of that.”

Park still grimaces when talking about his match with Jones.

Desperate for Olympic glory, Park had gutted out the tournament with a broken right hand he suffered during training. He said it didn’t really matter until he met Jones, the one opponent in Seoul who was quicker than him.

With the injury taking away his right-hand, Park simply had no chance at slowing Jones, who was coming at him with “excellent speed, power and technique.”

“I was pretty quick for a middleweight, but Jones was at a different level,” Park recalled. “A boxer just knows whether he had won or lost a match. I thought I lost because I didn’t put up a fight deserving of a win.”

Park said he felt “confused” when the referee raised his hand. Wearing a stunned look on his face, Park awkwardly embraced and held up an expressionless Jones into the air.

He said he couldn’t wait to get off the podium, where he smiled weakly and slowly waved a bouquet of flowers toward the stands as fans let out hesitant cheers and scattered boos.

An even more humiliating moment came when a South Korean national broadcaster invited all of the country’s 12 gold medalists to a live TV celebration shortly after the Games. The host treated Park like he wasn’t there while interviewing each of the other 11.

There was an outpouring of media criticism and what Park described as “unspeakable” insults, which included derisive public calls for him to forfeit his medal.

The emotional distress “was like being hit with a hammer on the back of your head, again and again.”

“I keep thinking how my life would have been happier had I finished second,” Park said. “A gold medal is important, but isn’t any Olympic medal satisfying and glorious?”

Park said the sense of defeat and depression sometimes led to suicidal urges. He credits his wife for helping him navigate out of his darkest moods. The couple contemplated moving to a different country before deciding to stay after they had children.

Their youngest child, Rei, now a 20-year-old college student in Louisiana, has his own athletic ambitions, training as a javelin thrower with dreams of competing in the 2024 Olympics.

Park said he keeps his Olympic gold framed on a wall at his home in mainland South Korea, along with other awards he won in amateur competition. He doesn’t recall ever bringing it out of the house.

While Park doesn’t have many regrets about never going pro, saying he probably wouldn’t have gone far with an evasive style built for efficiency and avoiding hits but not for initiating pain, he still watched Jones’ post-Olympic triumphs with envy.

He wondered whether the public would ever forget the fiasco surrounding his gold medal, which the South Korean media brought up after almost every Jones fight or whenever there was controversy in any Olympic sport. He would try to laugh it off whenever students asked about his gold at school.

After overlooking him for years, South Korea’s boxing association reached back to Park in 2001, asking him to coach the national team following years of disappointing performances in international events, which reflected a dearth of talent in the sport.

During his on-and-off coaching stints with the national team since then, Park trained several boxers who performed decently in various events, but they never came close to an Olympic gold.

Park had the highest hopes for Lee Ok-Song, who won the men’s 51kg division in the 2005 World Championships. But Lee failed to reach the quarterfinals of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and retired after the Games.

Park said he had occasionally kept in touch with Jones, including a brief telephone conversation with him in 2004 while visiting Atlanta for an international event.

The International Olympic Committee in 1997 concluded it had found no evidence to support bribery allegations against the judges who voted in favor of Park in the Seoul Games.

The U.S. Olympic Committee had called for an investigation in 1996 after documents belonging to East Germany’s Stasi secret police revealed reports of judges being paid to vote for South Korean boxers.

While Park left South Korea’s national team after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, he hasn’t given up on his goal of winning an Olympic gold as a coach.

Among the four boxers he trains in Seogwipo, Park is most impressed with Kang Hyeon-Bin, who competes in the men’s 64kg division, and Cho Hye-Bin, a woman in the 51kg category.

“I am constantly looking for a raw stone I could polish into a jewel,” he said. “I want to sculpt a true Olympic gold medalist with my own hands and see that fighter take the highest spot on the podium. That would restore my honor and allow me to leave the boxing ring for good.”

MORE: Top U.S. Olympic boxing hopeful cleared of doping violations caused by sex

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Rikako Ikee, Japan swim star, moves up return from leukemia

Rikako Ikee
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Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee moved up her return to competition from leukemia from October to later this month, according to Japanese media.

Ikee, who was a Tokyo Olympic medal contender before her February 2019 diagnosis, is entered in a 50m freestyle at a meet in Tokyo on Aug. 29, according to the reports.

Ikee, a 20-year-old who was ranked No. 1 in the world in the 100m butterfly in 2018, has repeated that her goal for an Olympic return is the 2024 Paris Games.

“I think my swimming ability has returned to about the level in my first or second year of junior high school,” Ikee said last month, according to a Kyodo News translation. “My aspiration as a 20-year-old is to compete in some kind of event, get an accurate read on my current status, and then find more and more ways to get stronger.”

Ikee, Japan’s premier female swimmer in 2017 and 2018, was discharged after a 10-month hospitalization in December.

“I’m aiming for 2024,” Ikee said in July, according to Kyodo. “I’m hoping to build a solid foundation since I’m no longer tied down by next year’s Olympics.”

Before her leukemia diagnosis, Ikee won the 100m butterfly at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships, the year’s major international meet. She also took silver in the 200m freestyle ahead of Katie Ledecky. She later earned six golds, including four in individual events, at the Asian Games.

Ikee finished fifth in the 100m butterfly as a 16-year-old at the Rio Olympics.

MORE: Simone Manuel’s experiences shape her voice for change today

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