A Russian Olympic curler has been implicated in a doping case, sources told AFP on Sunday, in a potential setback to the country’s image as it battles to recover from a major scandal which triggered its ban from the Pyeongchang Winter Games.

Alexander Krushelnitsky, a mixed doubles bronze medallist, was the curler at the centre of the controversy with allegations that he had taken the banned drug meldonium – the same substance that saw Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova suspended.

Russia was banned from the Olympics after the emergence of systemic doping. But the International Olympic Committee is considering lifting the ban before the Pyeongchang closing ceremony on February 26.

A fresh doping case would be deeply embarrassing for Russia, which has 168 athletes deemed clean competing in Pyeongchang as neutral Olympic Athletes from Russia.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport said it had opened an anti-doping case against Russian curler Alexander Krushelnitsky on Monday.

“The CAS Anti-Doping Division has initiated a procedure involving the athlete Alexander Krushelnitsky,” a statement said.

The IOC suspended Russia in December after revelations of a widespread and highly orchestrated doping conspiracy, which first emerged before the Rio 2016 Summer Games.

Investigations found that the doping plot, straddling several years, culminated when Russia hosted the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, where they topped the medals table.

‘Widespread use’

Russian athletes in Pyeongchang are under strict instructions to honour the “letter and spirit” of guidelines governing their participation, including not waving the Russian flag or wearing its colours.

The IOC panel is due to consider how well the Russian team has observed the guidelines before making a recommendation on whether to lift the ban.

Meldonium was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances in 2016. Russian tennis player Sharapova, a former world number one, served a 15-month ban after testing positive for meldonium early that year.

Russian short-track speed skater Semen Elistratov, who won bronze in the men’s 1,500m in Pyeongchang, served a brief ban for the same substance in 2016.

Richard Budgett, medical director for the International Olympic Committee, said it seemed that Elistratov took the drug before it was banned.

“Because of the way it’s metabolised, it can stay in the system for many, many months, even nine months after it had been taken,” Budgett told journalists last week.

He added: “We have to be realistic – meldonium was used in a widespread way throughout Eastern Europe and Russia and was considered to be a tonic, a type of cardiac stimulant that was not prohibited.

“But of course, quite rightly it was then prohibited and because it was such widespread use there were a large number of cases.”

‘Alexander not stupid’

A Russian curling coach on Monday sprang to the defence of Krushelnitsky saying: “It’s stupid and Alexander is not a stupid man.”

Sergei Belanov, women’s curling coach for the Olympic Athletes from Russia, dismissed reports that the mixed doubles bronze medallist had taken the banned drug meldonium.

“No benefits. No advantage,” said Belonov. “And I don’t believe a young man chooses risk or will use the same drug that has been around for two years.

“It’s stupid and Alexander is not a stupid man.”

Krushelnitsky is the only curler named Alexander on the Russian team. Various Russian reports have named him as the athlete involved.

A spokesman for the OAR said an A sample from a Russian athlete showed a possible violation of anti-doping rules, and a B sample would be tested on Monday.

“I would never believe someone on our team would do that,” said women’s curling skip Victoria Moiseeva. “I don’t know how he could do such a thing and sleep at night because it’s not only him, but it’s the whole nation.”

Russia was banned from the Pyeongchang Olympics in December following a probe into state-sponsored doping but 16 clean athletes were allowed to take part as independents representing the OAR.

“We all know what happened before,” said Moiseeva. “We would never risk that. We don’t know how it happened. We would never believe he would have done it on purpose.”

Krushelnitsky and his wife Anastasia Bryzgalova captured the bronze medal last Tuesday in the mixed doubles.

“I can’t imagine how he and his wife feel. There are no words to comfort them now,” Moiseeva added, saying teammates were affected by the news as they lost 11-2 to Switzerland in a pool game Tuesday morning.

“We wanted not to think about it when we found out, but it was still in our heads,” Moiseeva said.

Shock and bewilderment

The Olympic curling fraternity awoke on Monday to news of a Pyeongchang doping scandal wondering more why a curler would cheat rather than fearful of an uneven playing field.

The revelation sparked disbelief from Denmark women’s skip Madeleine DuPont as she pondered what advantages doping might bring in such a precision-based event.

“I was pretty shocked. ‘How can this be?’” DuPont asked.

“I’m sure most people would think, ‘What do they need doping for? What’s the benefit?’ – like I’m thinking.”

The stone-sliding crowd isn’t known for bulking up on muscle power, with meldonium banned for its ability to increase blood flow and thereby exercise capacity.

“I’m not even sure what you use drugs for in curling,” DuPont said. “Strength and such? It’s not really up my alley.”

DuPont said she does not see dope cheats when she competes against the Russian women and is confident of a clean playing field.

“I know the Russian girls really well,” she said. “They are good and kind and a benefit to the reputation of the sport.”

Switzerland women’s skip Silvana Tirinzoni leaped to defend the fitness level of curlers, saying even the most laid-back of Winter Olympic sports requires above-average levels of strength.

“It’s not like you don’t need any muscles,” Tirinzoni said. “We have to be fit. Everyone is working out five times a week and going to the gym. It can help.”

But she was as stunned as everyone else to learn about the possible doping case.

“I’m sure surprised,” she said. “Things like that shouldn’t happen in curing, or any other sports.”

United States women’s skip Nina Roth backed curling as a sport requiring power as well.

“You need strength but you have to do it the right way,” she said. “Any sort of doping isn’t good.”

Sweden’s Niklas Edin was equally stunned that curling had been dragged into the mire of doping.

“We have stayed away from those kind of topics for a long time,” he said.

“I definitely didn’t think we were going to find a positive test in this crew here... if it is a positive doping test in curling, it is just sad.”

With inputs from AFP