GANGNEUNG/PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) – A Russian Olympic medalist has left the Pyeongchang Winter Games on suspicion of doping, a Russian sports official said on Monday, in a case that could jeopardize the nation’s efforts to draw a line under a years-long drug-cheating scandal.
Alexander Krushelnitsky, who competes in curling, one of the Games’ least physically taxing sports, is suspected of testing positive for meldonium, a banned substance that increases blood flow and improves exercise capacity.
He is awaiting the results of analysis of his B sample, expected later on Monday, before a violation can be confirmed, a source familiar with the matter has said.
Asked for an update on Krushelnitsky’s case, Russian Olympic delegation spokesman Konstantin Vybornov told Reuters on Sunday that he had surrendered his Games accreditation pending B sample results. Later, he said he had not referred to any individual athlete by name and would make no more comment.
Krushelnitsky won bronze with his wife in mixed-doubles curling at Pyeongchang. Suspicions of a doping violation have shocked the Russian team and also the sport of curling, where steady hands and sharp eyes outweigh physical fitness.
“We were all shocked when we found out yesterday. Of course we very much hope it was some kind of mistake,” Russian curler Viktoria Moiseeva told reporters, adding that the team believed Krushelnitsky was innocent.
“With us it’s not faster, higher, stronger; it’s about being more accurate. I can’t imagine what kind of drugs you could use in curling … so it’s very hard to believe.”
Russian curling federation president Dmitry Svishchev said Russian curlers had been tested on Jan. 22 before flying out to South Korea and the tests were negative.
“I have known these guys for many years. Only a crazy person takes banned substances before a competition, before the Olympics,” Svishchev said on Sunday night when the news first broke. “It’s a strange story. It raises a lot of questions.”
Meldonium was banned in 2016 and led to Russian tennis player and former world number one Maria Sharapova being barred from competition for 15 months.
Russia has been accused of running a state-backed, systematic doping program for years, an allegation Moscow denies. As a result, its athletes are competing at Pyeongchang as neutral “Olympic Athletes from Russia” (OAR).
The Russians had been hoping that a clean record at Pyeongchang would persuade the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow them to march at the Games closing ceremony on Feb. 25 with the Russian flag and in national uniform.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) said on Monday that any doping violation, if confirmed, would be known around noon (0300 GMT). A decision would be made soon after that.
If confirmed, the violation would be considered by the IOC’s OAR Implementation panel, the body in charge of monitoring the OAR team’s behavior at the Games.
Krushelnitsky has not responded to a request for comment.
He and his wife, Anastasia Bryzgalova, won bronze in a game against Norway, which would take that medal if a doping violation were to be confirmed.
“I hope it’s not true … for the sport of curling,” said Norwegian team skipper Thomas Ulsrud.
“If it’s true I feel really sad for the Norwegian team who worked really hard and ended up in fourth place and just left for Norway and they aren’t even here.”
(Additional reporting by Steve Keating and Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Mark Bendeich)