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A Russian athlete tested positive for a banned substance at the Olympics. Again.

Russia’s efforts to improve its image at the Olympics are not going well.

Aleksandr Krushelnitckii of Olympic Athletes from Russia looks on against Norway during the curling mixed doubles bronze medal game on February 13, 2018, in Gangneung, South Korea. 
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Aleksandr Krushelnitckii, an Olympic curler from Russia, left the Pyeongchang Winter Games on Sunday after a positive preliminary test for the banned substance meldonium.

Krushelnitckii (also spelled Alexander Krushelnitsky) won a bronze medal last week with his wife and teammate Anastasia Bryzgalova in mixed-doubles curling, an event that made its debut this year in Pyeongchang. The medal was also Russia’s first in curling.

But on Sunday, Krushelnitckii tested positive, in the “A” sample, for meldonium, a heart drug that was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency in 2016 because it boosts endurance. On Monday, officials took the “B” sample, and hours later, the Court of Arbitration for Sport formally opened an investigation into Krushelnitckii. The court hasn’t yet scheduled any hearings.

If meldonium sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same drug that got Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova suspended from the International Tennis Federation.

If the court collects enough evidence of doping, it’s likely to force Krushelnitckii and Bryzgalova to forfeit their medals, marring Russia’s attempt to rehabilitate its image after a massive state-sponsored doping regime was uncovered at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

As punishment for its unprecedented doping scandal, Russia was forced to have its 169 Russian athletes (who’d all tested clean) at this year’s games compete as “Olympic Athletes from Russia” under the Olympic flag wearing drab gray livery rather than under the Russian flag in their national colors. The International Olympic Committee had suggested that these athletes could march under their national flag in the closing ceremony of the games, a step toward reinstating Russia. But Krushelnitckii’s case has now put that possibility in jeopardy. The IOC is expected to make a decision this Saturday.

Bronze medalists Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii (right) in their gray Olympic Athletes from Russia jackets pose during the medal ceremony for mixed-doubles curling.
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Doping is notoriously rampant at the Olympic Games, though most athletes don’t get caught since there are hundreds of banned substances and not enough bandwidth among anti-doping authorities to screen everyone for everything.

However, the scrutiny increases for medal winners like Krushelnitckii. Athletes typically provide a blood or urine specimen that is divided into an A sample, which receives a preliminary screen, and a B sample, which is usually tested off site for a specific substance after a suspicious result from the A sample.

For curling, a sport that requires sliding a heavy stone and aggressively sweeping ice in front of it to direct its motion, doping could yield an advantage, especially in the doubles version of the event, where team members sweep more than they would on a larger team.

“To have that quick recovery and to be able to sweep again and again and again, it could definitely benefit you,” Canadian curler Marc Kennedy told the Washington Post.

Krushelnitckii wasn’t the only athlete who tested positive in South Korea. Japanese speedskater Kei Saito left the games after authorities detected acetazolamide, a drug that can mask the presence of other performance enhancers.

According to the Guardian, Krushelnitckii told Russian officials he thought a teammate “who was not selected for the Winter Olympics spiked his drink with meldonium at a training camp before he travelled to South Korea.”

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