The drug at the center of Maria Sharapova's doping case was regularly given to Soviet troops in the 1980s to boost their stamina while fighting in Afghanistan, the AP reports. The tennis star said Monday she failed a doping test at the Australian Open in January for meldonium, which became a banned substance under the World Anti-Doping Agency code this year. Meldonium is a heart medicine that improves blood flow and is little known in the US, but it was once common in the Soviet military. The drug's inventor, Ivars Kalvins, told Latvian newspaper Diena in a 2009 interview that meldonium was given to soldiers during the 1980s, when Soviet forces were fighting in Afghanistan. "High altitudes. Oxygen deprivation. If they have to run [12 miles] with all the gear, at the end they would get ischemia (a blood circulation condition)," Kalvins was quoted as saying. "They were all given meldonium. They themselves were not aware they were using it."
Kalvins added meldonium wasn't "doping," noting it "allows you to withstand more physical pressure, but the body still spends its spare reserves." Meldonium was banned by WADA because it aids oxygen uptake and endurance, and several athletes in various international sports have been caught using it since it was banned Jan. 1. Latvian manufacturer Grindeks has previously stated that meldonium can provide an "improvement of work capacity of healthy people at physical and mental overloads and during rehabilitation period," but it said Tuesday it believed the substance wouldn't enhance athletes' performance in competition and might even do the opposite. Sharapova said Monday she had taken meldonium for a decade following various health problems, though her lawyer noted that "the dosage that Maria was taking was substantially less than any dosage that has been linked to potential performance-enhancing attributes." The AP notes it was able to buy vials and tablets of meldonium, which isn't approved by the US FDA, over the counter in Moscow on Tuesday. (Read more Maria Sharapova stories.)