GANGNEUNG, South Korea >> When word broke on Monday that a Russian Olympic curler was facing a doping charge, the curling world was floored. Not because of the tired cliche that curling isn’t a real sport (and therefore, why would a curler need to dope?) But because doping goes against the very essence of what curling is all about.
The charge against Alexander Krushelnitsky, who won the curling mixed doubles bronze medal last week with his partner Anastasia Bryzgalova, stands in stark contrast to curling’s noteworthy adherence to good sportsmanship, an ethos known as “The Spirit of Curling.” The World Curling Federation’s rules quite literally state that a true curler would prefer to lose than to win unfairly.
On Monday, Krushelnitsky’s fellow curlers were trying to make sense of the scandal, with some openly questioning whether Krushelnitsky had been slipped a banned substance without his knowledge. Russian Curling Federation president Dmitry Svishchev said it was possible someone spiked Krushelnitsky’s food or drink with meldonium, which was banned in 2016.
“You’d never know if it was on purpose or by accident, but obviously that’s been banned for a year and a half and I can’t imagine that that was something that happened on purpose,” said John Shuster, the captain of the U.S. men’s curling team. “So it’s just unfortunate, because I know them, we’ve played in the same mixed doubles tournaments of that team and they’re good people. … I hope that he has the spirit of curling in his heart like we all do.”
Though to the uninitiated, the idea of a curler using performance-enhancing drugs may seem bizarre, the sport does demand a high level of athleticism at the Olympic level. Curlers need to have strong core muscles and upper body strength in order to manage the often rigorous sweeping that helps them guide the rock down the ice.
Fitness is even more important in mixed doubles, the event at which Krushelnitsky was competing. Because there are just two curlers on each team instead of the four in traditional curling, there is little rest between shots, and both teammates are often heavily involved in sweeping.
“Curling’s a finesse game, but there’s a lot of strength and endurance,” said U.S. Olympic curler Matt Hamilton, who played against Krushelnitsky in mixed doubles last week. “So there is advantages to it. It’s not quite as apparent as something like a cross-country skier, or maybe like a distance runner or even a weightlifter, but there is absolutely strength and conditioning and fitness in curling and you know it (doping) will give you a little bit of an edge.”
Russia was banned from the Pyeonchang Olympics because of a doping scheme at the 2014 Games in Sochi, although athletes who cleared extra tests were allowed to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia.” If Krushelnitsky and his wife are stripped of their medal, the fourth place Norwegian team, which has already returned home, may get the bronze.
The Russian women’s curling coach, Sergei Belanov, meanwhile, said there were no benefits to doping in curling, adding that he didn’t believe a young and “clever man” like Krushelnitsky would take a banned substance.
“It’s stupid. But Alexander is not stupid, so I don’t believe it,” he said.
Rachel Homan, the captain of the Canadian women’s team, said it doesn’t matter what, if any, advantages there are to doping in curling. She said it’s just disappointing when any athlete is caught breaking the rules.
“We think it’s right to play clean and play fair and that’s kind of Canada’s motto going forward,” she said.
Hamilton said it is Krushelnitsky’s responsibility to stay clean, no matter how a banned substance may have made its way into the Russian’s system.
“You’re responsible for what goes in your body,” Hamilton said. “And I feel bad, because it could be his coach giving him something. He had a claim that he thought maybe his Russian teammate in training might have done it. So I feel bad for the guy if he didn’t take it knowingly, but you’re responsible for what goes into your body, so I think they would have to strip him of his medal.”
Swiss curler Silvana Tirinzoni, whose team beat the Russian women’s team 11-2 in Monday’s round robin, said she had no reservations about her opponents, and believed they were playing clean. Still, she was disappointed that a doping scandal had somehow found its way into the generally honorable world of curling.
“Things like that shouldn’t really happen,” Tirinzoni said. “Not in curling and not in any other sport.”