Ukrainian gymnast Oleg Verniayev tested positive for meldonium in August 2020 in a surprise doping test. The Tokyo Olympic Games had been postponed and international sports competitions were still stalled by the pandemic. He was notified of the result of the test in November 2020 and was provisionally suspended, which led him to miss -in the first instance- the European Championship, held in Turkey in December of that year. In July 2021, Verniaiev received the official four-year suspension, which began to be applied retroactively from November 5, 2020. Not only would the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021 be missed, but also those in Paris 2024.
Verniaiev appealed the decision in the TAS, alleging that the source of meldonium was contaminated food. This is a strong argument that was also used recently by Russian cyclist Natalia Studenikina: she was able to demonstrate that the meldonium in her body came from the dairy products she consumed, since it is an active ingredient in veterinary drugs for livestock and poultry that is used in Eastern Europe. That low concentrated percentage may be sufficient for a doping test to be positive. Verniaiev was able to prove, then, that he did not take meldonium intentionally and his suspension was reduced, but not canceled. The most significant thing is that he was able to compete again and his chances of going to the Paris Olympic Games are a reality once again.
Verniaiev, 29, was Olympic champion in parallel in Rio 2016, a few days after fighting the all-around title until the last device against Japan’s Kohei Uchimura, who would end up winning by just 0.09 hundredths. Always high-profile and currently highly critical of Russian gymnasts due to the geopolitical situation, his suspension surprised the gymnastics community because it took a long time to become public. The International Federation (FIG) identified him as a suspended athlete in his digital biography, but the case was only clear in 2021.
This Tuesday, after learning about the reduction in the sentence, the Ukrainian expressed himself on his Instagram account: “It was a long process in which I verified the lack of intention of doping myself. The TAS reduced the sanction by half because it accepted my arguments and confirmed that meldonium did not enter my body because of my fault or negligence. I thank my loved ones and friends for believing in me and supporting me all this time. To all those who didn’t want me to come back, see you soon. Faster. Higher. Stronger.”
When the four-year sanction was confirmed and made official, in July 2021, Verniaiev also chose his networks to make his position public: “Why was a single test positive and none of the dozens of tests that followed found a banned substance? A positive test only indicates the presence of a prohibited substance in the body, but does not indicate the athlete’s fault. If an athlete is sure that he is not guilty, he should not give up,” wrote at the time the Ukrainian, who was also an all-around bronze medalist at the 2019 World Cup.