Doping scandal rocks Olympic curling — yes, curling

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Alexander Krushelnitsky practices Feb. 7, 2018, ahead of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea. Russian curlers say a coach on their team told them that mixed doubles bronze medalist Krushelnitsky tested positive for a banned substance at the Pyeongchang Olympics. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File)

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — The news of Alexander Krushelnitsky’s banishment spread fast Sunday night, bouncing from one athlete and official to the next. It came as a shock in some corners and a sad fulfillment of expectation in others. The process of sharing updates of a failed drug test has become commonplace at the Olympics, and those inside the sport tend to know first. “It’s such a tightknit community,” American Tyler George said. “That stuff gets around pretty quick.”

What made Sunday night strange was the sport: Krushelnitsky, of the Olympic Athletes from Russia, is a curler. He was sent home from the Pyeongchang Olympics five days after winning a bronze medal in mixed doubles for failing a drug test, reportedly for the banned heart treatment meldonium. A ‘B’ sample confirmed the initial evidence, and a case will officially be opened, according to the CAS.

The curling world has not dealt with doping scandals before, but in reacting to Krushelnitsky’s failed test, it borrowed at least one emotion from other sports: Anger.

“It’s infuriating for the other athletes to know that this is going on, and they still get to compete,” Canadian assistant skip Marc Kennedy said. “Now you’ve got an athlete that says he was clean again and tests positive. It’s unbelievable, for every other clean athlete in the world.

“And we’re in a sport where obviously it doesn’t affect that much. It’s not going to make you a better athlete, to be honest. For those athletes in the other sports that have to put up with this all the time, it’s unbelievable that they’re even allowed to be here.”

Along with low-grade outrage over yet another Russian doping case and the International Olympic Committee’s decision to let Russians compete in the first place, the news prompted sport-specific sneers and jokes. A curler got busted? For what, too many Miller Lites? The implication of the barbs was obvious. Curling, as even Kennedy alluded to in his screed, is not a sport that requires strenuous physical exertion. Why would doping even matter? How could it possibly help?

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At least one Russian even weaponized the sentiment as a defense. Asked about the failed test, OAR women’s coach Sergei Belanov said he did not believe it to be true, first by uttering three words: “No any benefit.”

But according to Olympic curlers and coaches, doping would give an athlete an edge when guiding stones and sweeping ice, particularly in mixed doubles, the discipline in which Krushelnitsky won bronze. The reason starts with a broom.

About two years ago, U.S. coach Phil Drobnick said, the materials in the brooms curlers use to direct stones started to become so advanced the complexion of the sport began to change. Curlers could direct stones with minimal effort, games could be decided based on which team had better brooms. Curling officials had never regulated brooms, but that changed. Every curler would use the same broom, and it would require strength to use it.

“So now, the best sweepers are the strongest and the guys that have the most endurance,” Drobnick said. “It’s a big change for our game.”

Increased endurance would matter most in mixed doubles, the event in which Krushelnitsky won bronze. In mixed doubles, which debuted at the Olympics this year, a man and woman comprise a two-curler team, unlike the foursomes that compete in the men’s and women’s events. Each player has to do twice the sweeping, including on the stone they threw themselves.

“To have that quick recovery and to be able to sweep again and again and again, it could definitely benefit you,” Kennedy said.

Curling has undergone a shift toward fitness, moving out of the days when a facsimile of an Olympic curling team could be plucked off four bar stools. In 2014, Canada won the Olympic gold medal with what Drobnick called, “one of the most physical fit teams in the world.” The victory convinced other countries they were ceding an edge by not embracing conditioning.

“Teams started emulating … them and making sure they’re ready to go,” Drobnick said.

The change can be seen in the physiques of top curlers. In Pyeongchang, they have shown up with chiseled torsos and bulging biceps. Kennedy’s veins run up his arms like roads on a map. The male Japanese curlers have attracted particular attention from certain corners, it seems. Gone are beer bellies and twig arms.

“It’s changed huge,” Kennedy said. “You’re seeing younger, stronger, fitter. You’re just going to continue to see that over the next 20 years.”

Krushelnitsky tested positive for meldonium, a drug developed to treat coronary artery disease by increasing blood flow. Because that could enhance an athlete’s capacity for exercise, the World Anti-Doping Agency placed it on its list of banned substances in 2016. Tennis star Maria Sharapova received a two-year suspension when a drug test showed traces of meldonium. The drug is produced in Latvia, banned by the FDA and largely unavailable outside the Baltic states.

If Krushelnitsky case is confirmed, the IOC will likely prevent OAR from marching under the Russian flag in the closing ceremony. (“Awesome,” Kennedy said.) He will have to give back the bronze medal, which he won with partner Anastasia Bryzgalova. While anger poured in some corners of the curling world, others felt sadness.

“I know them,” U.S. skip John Shuster said. “We play in the same mixed doubles tournaments as that team, and they’re good people. It’s hard to say. Obviously, stories like this happen. It’s just more, I feel bad for him and his partner and the situation. You just never really know. It’s unfortunate.

“I hope that he has the spirit of curling in his heart, like we all do. You don’t ever expect that’s going to happen.”

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