- A Russian athlete tested positive for using the banned performance-enhancing substance meldonium at the Winter Olympics after he and his wife won the bronze medal in mixed doubles curling.
- Yes, you read that right: curling.
- There’s an argument to made that an endurance boost could help with curling. But Alexander Krushelnitsky has a more sinister explanation for why he failed his drug test.
For anti-doping authorities at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, all eyes were on the Russian athletes.
After the systematic doping operation undertaken by the Russians at the 2014 Sochi Games was revealed, the Russians were banned from even competing under their own national flag. Instead, athletes had to compete in neutral uniforms, listed as “Olympic athletes from Russia.”
Still, according to some estimates, more than a third of elite athletes use some sort of drug to boost their performance.
Yet it still must have been quite the shock when Alexander Krushelnitsky’s test came back positive for meldonium, which was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list in 2016.
Krushelnitsky isn’t in Korea to compete in cross-country skiing or speed skating — grueling sports where it’s easy to see how an endurance-boosting drug might help. Krushelnitsky competes in the fantastic but much more leisurely-paced sport of curling.
It turns out there’s at least an argument to be made for how a performance boost might help a curler. But whether or not it’d be useful enough to matter is a different question — and Krushelnitsky reportedly has a different explanation for how he might have failed the tests.
An odd drug
After Krushelnitsky and his wife Anastasia Bryzgalova won the Bronze medal match in mixed doubles curling, he gave two samples to anti-doping authorities. Both tested positive for meldonium.
Meldonium was developed in Latvia to increase blood flow and help with certain heart conditions. It became popular among Russian athletes, who reportedly used it because of potential endurance-boosting capacities. That’s why the WADA banned its use, which resulted in Maria Sharapova’s 15-month ban from tennis competition.
In 2016, the year of the ban, more than 100 Russian athletes were found to be using the substance. That year, some athletes had bans reversed after it was revealed users may have tested positive for use months after they took the drug, potentially stretching back to before the ban started.
All that makes meldonium a bit of an odd choice. The length of time it stays in the body makes it far easier to detect than other performance-enhancing drugs.
Plus, curling doesn’t seem like the most physically demanding of sports. American and Canadian curlers have posted photos of joint beer drinking sessions together for a traditional post-match “broomstacking” beverage.
“I know its the Olympics… but at the end of the day its still curling,” Canadian John Morris posted on an Instagram photo.
Do curlers really need an endurance boost?
“I will say that there is a reason to dope during curling,” Lee Banville, an assistant professor at the University of Montana journalism school and a curler, told the Missoulian, a Montana newspaper. It’s all about sweeping, according to Banville. When curlers furiously sweep the ice in front of a curling stone, they’re able to reduce friction, changing the degree to which the stone turns and the distance that it travels.
That process of moving quickly and scrubbing the ice is tiring.
“Many of the commentators, and watching myself, we were blown away by how good [Krushelnitsky] was at sweeping,” Banville said.
In the Olympics, a fraction of a percentage difference in performance can mean the difference between a podium finish and a loss. That’s why athletes often gravitate towards performance boosting techniques that may simply rely on the placebo effect. After all, a placebo can still provide a measurable boost — enough to account for a victory.
Krushelnitsky has another explanation for why he tested positive for meldonium. He thinks a teammate who wasn’t chosen for the Olympics may have spiked a drink of his with the banned substance before he took off for Korea, according to the The Guardian.
But for now it least, it looks like the team from Norway will end up earning the bronze after all.