Alexander Krushelnitsky and his wife won bronze in curling event, but a doping charge threatens their medal and Russia's chances of Olympics redemption

By Kurt Pitzer
February 20, 2018 01:40 PM
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In a case of lessons not learned, a Russian curler has been accused of taking a forbidden performance-enhancing drug at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang — while his country is still serving an official ban for doping.

If an investigation begun by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) confirms that Alexander Krushelnitsky took the stamina-increasing substance meldonium, he and wife/co-competitor Anastasia Bryzgalova will likely be stripped of the bronze medals they won in the mixed-doubles curling.

It could also cost Russia the chance to be reinstated as a participating nation at the Feb. 25 closing ceremony, an IOC spokesman told TIME.

Russia was banned from the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea on evidence of systemic doping four years ago in Sochi, Russia. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) reversed course in late 2017 and allowed Russian athletes to compete as “neutral” competitors known as “Olympic athletes from Russia” (OAR), as long as they passed doping tests.

2018 Winter Olympic Games: Curling, Mixed Doubles, United States 9 - 3 Russia
Credit: Valery SharifulinTASS/Getty

Russians float sabotage defense

The IOC had indicated that it could let Russia participate officially in the closing ceremony in Pyeongchang if none of the country’s athletes or representatives broke rules in the meantime.

Krushelnitsky passed a drug test before leaving Russia for a pre-Olympics training on Jan. 22, Russian Curling Federation President Dmitry Svishchev told the Associated Press. Svishchev suggested that someone may have sabotaged Krushelnitsky by slipping meldonium into his food at training camp.

“There’s a possibility of it being something within the team, that something happened during training camp, or as a political means to achieve some goal” by one of Russia’s enemies, he told the AP, without mentioning the United States by name.

Russian curler Victoria Moiseeva told TIME that a coach broke the news of Krushelnitsky’s failed test to the Russian team, which reportedly has had little contact with Krushelnitsky or Bryzgalova since the allegations became public. “There are no words to comfort now,” Moiseeva told the publication. “We just tried to stay away.”

The controversy surrounding the 25-year-old curlers, who had become popular on social media for their wedding portraits and other pictures, stunned the normally sedate world of curling and embarrassed the IOC.

Bad blood

It is the latest episode in a doping scandal that has reverberated throughout the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, with tinges of bad blood between Russia and the United States that were so familiar during the Cold War and which have resurfaced with evidence that Russia meddled in the U.S. presidential election.

In a break from normal Olympic sportsmanship, Russian and U.S. athletes reportedly refused to speak to each other during the skeleton event.

And in a fierce match in which the U.S. men’s hockey team was pummeled 4-0 by players from Russia, the atmosphere was reportedly tense throughout, and the Russians piled on at the end of the game, putting their best players on the ice for a meaningless power play in the closing seconds, leading the U.S. coach to complain, “I didn’t like it.”

2018 Winter Olympic Games: Curling, Mixed Doubles, United States 9 - 3 Russia
Credit: Valery SharifulinTASS/Getty

Doping tests mar games

Krushelnitsky is not the only athlete to fail a drug test at this year’s Winter Olympics. Before competition began, Japanese speed skater Kei Saito was sent home after testing positive for the diuretic acetalozamide, which can hide the use of other banned drugs. And on Feb. 19, it was revealed that Slovenian hockey player Ziga Jeglic had tested positive for the fenoterol, a drug designed to widen the airways to the lungs. Jeglic said he had taken the substance for asthma under a doctor’s supervision, although other asthma medications not banned at the Olympics are available.

The IOC was expected to receive results of Krushelnitsky’s second drug test Feb. 19, but did not immediately release any news. The delegation from the Olympic Athletes of Russia revealed late Tuesday in South Korea that the second test confirmed Krushelnitsky’s use of meldonium, but suggested results showed he had taken the banned substance only once, not enough to enhance his performance.

The Russian Olympic Committee stated that “the concentration of meldonium found in the sample indicates a single use of the drug, which is not used in medical practice, is absolutely meaningless from the point of view of achieving any therapeutic effect on the human body.”

Curling’s new look

Curling had been seen as something of a joke by many outside the sport, requiring little more than janitorial skill and the aim of a shuffleboard player. When the sport was first introduced at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, its athletes were often paunchy and bespectacled. But in recent years curlers have sported buffer bodies and more stylish attire, with a Canadian promoter putting together annual calendars of scantily clad curlers.

CURLING-OLY-2018-PYEONGCHANG-CAN-SUI
Credit: WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty

Mixed-doubles curling is seen as more rigorous than team curling, as only two athletes sweep the ice instead of four.

Meldonium, which increases blood flow, was banned in 2015. It is the same substance for which Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive in 2016 and served a 15-month suspension.