The obscure drug revealed in Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova's failed doping test at the Australian Open was once touted by its Latvian maker as a pharmaceutical staple of top Russian and Latvian ice hockey players.
Kirovs Lipmans, owner and chairman of the Latvian drug manufacturer Grindeks, told the Latvian portal Delfi.lv in a 2011 interview that meldonium, a recently banned performance-enhancing substance also known as mildronate that Sharapova this week admitted to taking, was "very popular among athletes."
"I know that the Russian national ice hockey team don't even come to training camps without mildronate, to say nothing of Latvian national team players," Lipmans, who has served as president of the Latvian Ice Hockey Federation since 1998, said in the interview.
Lipmans added in the April 2011 interview that "athletes are talking about the possibility of using mildronate in all types of sports" and that testing conducted in Germany determined that "without a doubt" it is not a performance-enhancing drug.
"I presume that in the coming years it will become a very popular drug among athletes," he said. "Ice hockey players have long taken mildronate, and now Russians are actively breaking into this."
Those remarks appear prophetic amid a spate of cases in which world-class athletes -- including at least four from Russia and two from Ukraine -- tested positive for meldonium, which was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) as of January 1.
None drew more attention than Sharapova's following her March 7 announcement of her failed drug test, which prompted three of her major sponsors -- sportswear giant Nike, Swiss watchmaker Tag Heuer, and German car company Porsche -- to cut ties with the world No. 7 tennis player.
Sharapova, who could be hit with a four-year ban, said her doctor had prescribed the medication to her for more than ten years because she was "getting sick very often" and had "a magnesium deficiency," as well as a family history of diabetes.
Made In The U.S.S.R.
Grindeks says meldonium was designed to treat people with chronic heart and circulation conditions, those recovering from illness or injury, and people suffering from "reduced working capacity, physical and psycho-emotional overload."
The drug, which has not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, was originally developed in the U.S.S.R. to help soldiers cope during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a Latvian newspaper reported in 2009.
The Baltic nation's Diena newspaper said in the article that it "was invented in the Soviet era, when Ivars Kalvins was studying mechanisms of stress on the body."
"His research results coincided with the authorities' demand to create a medicine that enhances endurance and performance. So the medicine, first produced in small quantities in laboratories, became a part of a nearly everyday diet for [Soviet] soldiers -- it was used by pilots and those who served on submarines, as well by those who took part in the [Soviet] war in Afghanistan," Diena wrote, The Washington Post reported.
Kalvins told the newspaper: "High altitude. Oxygen deprivation. If you have to run 20 kilometers with your full kit, you wind up with [deficient oxygen levels in the heart muscles.] All of them were given mildronate. They themselves didn't know what they were using. There no one asked any questions."
Grindeks told the Associated Press this week that meldonium can provide an "improvement of work capacity of healthy people at physical and mental overloads and during rehabilitation period" but that the company believes the substance would not enhance -- and may actually impede -- athletic performance.
"It would be reasonable to recommend them to use meldonium as a cell protector to avoid heart failure or muscle damage in case of unwanted overload," the AP quoted the company as saying.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, AFP, and The Washington Post