By Arthur L. Caplan & Lee H. Igel
Aleksandr Krushelnitckii and Anastasia Bryzgalova won the bronze medal in mixed-doubles curling last week at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. But good feelings about the Russian pair, who are husband and wife off the ice, are giving way to mocking remarks now that Krushelnitckii is being accused of doping. The allegations have many people wondering why an athlete in a sport that looks more like a leisure activity than an Olympic event would even consider using performance-enhancing drugs.
Krushelnitckii’s doping test samples came up positive for meldonium. The Court of Arbitration for Sport, at the request of the International Olympic Committee, is initiating proceedings that could lead to penalties, including his being stripped of the medal. For his part, Krushelnitckii says he didn’t do it.
As Denmark skip Madeleine Dupont said to Reuters: “I think most people will laugh and ask, ‘What could you possibly need doping for?’ as I am thinking. I’m not even sure what use doping would be for in curling.” But Magnus Nedregotten, who along with his Norway teammate Kristin Skaslien lost the bronze-medal match to Krushelnitckii and Bryzgalova, figures it likely has something to do with recovery time. In comments to reporters, he explained that a male sweeper in mixed doubles has to “follow and sweep every rock, and your muscles actually get quite sore and torn with all the work during that tight playing schedule [in the Olympics].”
Curling at the Olympic level is taxing, physically and mentally. Meldonium is a drug that helps medical conditions in which there is decreased blood supply to tissues, organs and other parts of the human body. Study on its use in patients showed them becoming “more active with decreased motor dysfunction” and “of benefit for the improvement of reduced work capacity and for physical and psycho-emotional overexertion.” So the potential powers that meldonium holds for boosting performance of both body and mind could be helpful to curlers.
Meldonium was originally developed for Soviet troops operating in the mountains of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In the span of time since, the drug and its inventor have been praised for producing social and economic benefits: In addition to preventing and treating heart disease, meldonium has generated upwards of €70 million per year in revenue and accounts for about 0.7% of all Latvian exports. Grindeks, the manufacturer of meldonium, insists that it is “a therapeutic drug” and “not a doping agent.”
In 2016, the World Anti-Doping Agency added meldonium to its banned substance list, following discovery of its use by athletes for the purposes of increasing oxygen-carrying capacity and boosting endurance. Soon after, Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for using the drug and was subsequently banned from the sport. In the immediate aftermath, there was a reported spike in sales of the drug in Russia and Latvia, where the inexpensive pill can be purchased over the counter.
Whether Krushelnitckii engaged in doping, or is somehow a victim of sabotage, will eventually be determined. Still, it raises the question of why an athlete would engage in doping in a sport that doesn’t look like it needs it.
One reason is that the requirements of the sport are actually more demanding than most people realize. But it is also worth paying some attention to aspects of doping behavior. In particular, consider that taking a performance-enhancing drug for the first time may weigh heavily on the mind of an athlete, but that there is usually less thinking about what is being done with each subsequent dose and as the practice becomes more routine. Another thing is that the behavior could be considered socially acceptable in the athlete’s circle, especially if teammates are doing it and, more so, if it is sanctioned by top decision-makers in the organization.
None of this is meant to excuse doping. It is simply to say that, if we want to prevent more of it in the future, we would do well to understand the decisions made in the context of a sport where its presence is unusual.
Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is the Drs. William F. and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor and head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. Lee H. Igel, PhD, is associate professor in the Tisch Institute at New York University. Both are affiliated with the NYU Sports and Society program.