Prior to this weekend, meldonium was not on the radar of many gymnastics fans. It was a problem that other sports were facing, but no gymnast had tested positive in 2016.
That changed this weekend when Nikolai Kuksenkov became the first known gymnast to test positive for the drug in 2016. Now, we, gymnastics fans, are scrambling to educate ourselves on the drug. Here's what I've learned about the drug over the past month or so.
What Is Meldonium?
Meldonium is a drug that gives sufferers of heart and circulatory conditions more “physical capacity and mental function," according to the Latvian drug manufacturer's website. It is sold primarily in the Baltic States and ex-Soviet countries. However, in 2016, athletes from countries like Sweden have tested positive for the drug.
Why Is It Banned?
The drug allegedly aids oxygen uptake and endurance. In other words, if you're out of shape and can't get through a floor routine, meldonium might give you the needed boost to do that final double pike (WAG) or triple full (MAG).
However, as the New York Times has noted, the science behind the drug is hazy. To be sure, there have been scientific studies about the drug, but most of them focus on medical conditions like diabetes or strokes (and even the sperm motility of boars).
Whether the drug actually aids athletes is uncertain. Some people are wondering whether the drug serves as a placebo. Though, one medical paper published in 2015 linked meldonium to improved endurance, as well as improved recovery times after exercise.
Why Are Scientific Studies Important to Gymnastics Fans?
A banned drug is a banned drug, and athletes are expected to follow the rules, right?
Well, kind of. I hate beating dead horses, but sometimes, you have to do it. So, here we go…
Gymnastics fans are especially sensitive to the whims of the banned substances list. As anyone born before 1992ish will remember, Andreea Raducan lost her 2000 all-around gold medal after she tested positive for pseudoephedrine – a drug that was banned at the time, but later removed from the banned substances list in 2003 (before being added back to the list again in 2010.)
Will meldonium have the same murky future as pseudoephedrine? I'm sure that some gymnastics fans are asking that question.
When Was the Drug Banned?
In 2014, the World Anti-Doping Agency put meldonium on its watch list. That, in effect, was a warning shot to sports federations around the globe. "You might want to stop using this, guys."
During 2015, WADA monitored the drug. Then, in September of 2015, the anti-doping agency notified everyone that meldonium would be added to the banned substance list – effective January 1, 2016.
Did Nikolai Have Enough Time to Remove Meldonium from His System?
It's unclear how long the drug takes to leave someone's system. The manufacturer has said that it can take "several months." By notifying athletes in September of 2015 that the drug would be banned in 2016, WADA gave athletes roughly three months to get the drug out of their system. Was that enough notice?
Speaking more specifically about Russian gymnastics: Valentina Rodionenko has said that the Russian team stopped using the drug in August of 2015, and Nikolai's urine sample was taken on March 15, 2016. That would have given Nikolai roughly seven months to get the drug out of his system.
To me, that seems like plenty of time, but then again, I'm not a scientist.
What Happens Next?
TBD. Right now, Valentina Rodionenko is requesting the results of Nikolai's drug test from the Stuttgart World Cup, where he finished third. Valentina, I'm sure, is hoping that his Stuttgart urine sample is free of meldonium.
Is This The Last We'll Hear of Meldonium?
In 2015, while WADA was monitoring the drug, seven gymnasts tested positive for the drug at the European Games in Baku. No, we don't know who those gymnasts are, and I doubt that we will find out, given that the gymnasts were not breaking any rules at the time. (Again, the drug wasn't banned until January 1, 2016.)