In the World of Curling, a Scandal Unfurling

Jimmy Gao ‘20

Days before the 2018 Olympic Games, Russian bobsledder Nadezhda Sergeeva proudly donned a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, “I Don’t Do Doping” — as if she was inviting Olympic officials to test her. Unfortunately, when they took her up on her offer, the result was positive (surprise!), and in a delightful twist of irony, Nadezhda “I Don’t Do Doping” Sergeeva was disqualified from the Olympic Games for doping.

However, Sergeeva’s incident was only the second Russian doping scandal to emerge at Pyeongchang. Just days after Russian curler Alexander Krushelnitsky won the bronze medal in the first-ever mixed doubles curling competition with partner Anastasia Bryzgalova, he also tested positive for using endurance-boosting drug meldonium and was immediately disqualified from the Games.

Among the general public, curling exists as a relatively niche sport. Several Ridge students appeared confused as to what curling was, until Aman Singh ’22 was finally able to describe the event. “It’s like bowling, but on ice, but with sweeping,” he told me enthusiastically. “I was really good at it on the Wii.”

Curling, affectionately referred to as “chess on ice”, is the gentlest game the Winter Olympics offers. Requiring neither the endurance of the biathlon or the raw strength of cross-country skiing, curling has just two teams of four as they compete to throw heavy stones and sweep them as close as they can to the center of a target marked into the ice. As such, for many winter athletes, the thought of a doping scandal in curling sounds like a poorly-written comedy skit. But while some scratch their heads at the use of performance-enhancing drugs in a sport that prides itself on its strategic depth rather than its physical demands, U.S. Olympic curler Matt Hamilton explained otherwise: “There is absolutely a lot of strength and endurance and fitness in curling,” he explained to NBC during the Games, “and you know doping will give you a little bit of an edge.”

While doping in any sport would prove to be a controversial matter, the accusations have especially offended the international curling community, which prides itself on its etiquette and good sportsmanship, referred to as the “Spirit of Curling.” The World Curling Federation dictates that curlers should always play honestly and fairly, even writing that “a curler would prefer to lose than to win unfairly.” Curling aficionado Sanil Torani ‘18 comments, “Curling is supposed to be one of those gentlemanly sports out there, like golf. So the fact that someone was dishonestly doping is a huge, huge deal.” Olympic teams view Krushelnitsky’s offense as especially egregious — not just because he has violated the rules, but because he has also violated the essence of the sport itself.

If Krushelnitsky and Sergeeva’s disqualifications had been isolated incidents, they would have been small but manageable controversies. After all, two other Olympic competitors — Japanese speed-skater Kei Saito and Slovenian hockey player Ziga Jeglic — had already left Pyeongchang after they tested positive for doping just a few days earlier. However, Russia has had widespread, state-sponsored doping programs for years; in 2016, 111 of the 389 athletes the country intended to send to the Rio Summer Olympic Games were rejected by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) because of previously failed drug tests. After reports were released in 2017 detailing the extent to which the Russian government had been involved in supporting doping at the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games (including tampering with urine samples and silencing whistleblowers), the IOC officially banned Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. Instead, Russian athletes with drug-free backgrounds were offered a chance to compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” (OAR), but without their national anthem, flag, or uniforms — essentially, putting Russia on probation. Intended as a reconciliatory gesture to help Russia regain its standing in the world of international sporting, the 2018 Pyeongchang Games were intended to signal to the world that Russians were willing to play clean. Now, Krushelnitsky and Sergeeva’s disqualifications have seriously damaged that message.

For his part, Krushelnitsky defended himself from accusations, claiming that a teammate had spiked his drink with meldonium at a Russian training camp before he departed for Pyeongchang. Nevertheless, his medal was revoked, and his disqualification resulted in the IOC denying Russia their national anthem at the Pyeongchang closing ceremonies.

Curling is renowned for being scandal-free and good-natured, and the emergence of a doping scandal in such a sport feels like watching an innocent little brother get in trouble with the police for the first time. Meanwhile, two bad eggs marred Russia’s aims to prove themselves to the IOC with a fair, clean performance at Pyeongchang. At the heart of these two narratives is the curling doping scandal, extraordinary in the way it shocked the world — and in the way it will shape both the curling community and Russian athletic delegations in the future.