CURLING IS THE last sport you might expect to be rocked by a doping scandal, but not when the Russians are involved, writes RON REED:
THE WINTER Olympics have always been a little weird. And Exhibit One has long been the strange sport of curling, in which competitors walk along armed with brooms, with which they guide rounded 20kg hunks of granite along a rink by sweeping the ice ahead. It involves skill and strategy, as all sports must, but is hardly physically demanding. So why anyone would want to resort to performance-enhancing drugs is not merely a mystery – it has threatened to become the joke of the PyeongChang Games.
But in one crucial aspect, it is completely unfunny with potentially drastic consequences. That’s because the athlete who did so, Alexander Krushelnytsky, is from Russia, a country that is on the nose with the Olympic movement, summer and winter, because of proven state-sponsored doping across a range of sports, especially track and field but also at the last winter games in their own city of Sochi. Bending over backwards to be fair, the International Olympic Committee permitted 169 Russians to compete on the snow and ice under the Olympic flag rather than their own. This was a show of faith that not all Russians are cheats – and of course they aren’t. But it only takes one to make a mockery of the ICC’s good intentions.
And that’s what happened when Krushelnytsky tested positive to meldonium – the same prohibited substance that earned Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova a lengthy suspension a year ago – after he and his wife won a bronze medal in the mixed doubles (yes, it appears tennis and curling have a bit in common!). A heart medicine that increases blood flow, meldonium has brought down other athletes, including several Russians, since it was banned from most sports two years ago.
Krushelnytsky has left the athletes village to await the results of his B sample and to discover whether the medal will be taken away. It is acutely embarrassing for the Russians, complicating their efforts to rehabilitate their image. The ICC was considering letting them march under their own flag at the closing ceremony but that now remains to be seen. For their team-mates, it is mortifying. Victoria Moiseeva, the skip, or head curler, of the women’s team, told the New York Times the damage could be widespread. “It’s a catastrophe,” she said. “This is simply terrifying to think about.”
Others were simply mystified – even the women’s coach, Sergei Belanov, professed scepticism about the validity of the test. “I don’t believe that a young man, a clever man, will use the same doping that was so big the last two years,” he said. “It’s stupid. But Alexander is not stupid. So sorry, I don’t believe it.” Madeleine Dupont, the skip of the Danish women’s team, told the newspaper that she, too, didn’t think it could be true. “I think most people will laugh and be like, ‘What would you possibly need doping for?’”
This column couldn’t agree more. It is 20 years since we first came across curling at the winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and it hardly seemed like the pinnacle of athletic endeavour then. This is what we wrote in the Herald Sun at the time:
FIRST, a confession. I have to admit I missed Canada’s 7-5 win over Denmark in the women’s curling and I didn’t even realise that the silver was the first medal the Danes, any Danes, had won at the winter Olympics. Frankly, once I noticed that the daily special at the bar in the media centre was a crisp little Californian chardonnay, and that it was still snowing, this landmark event was doomed to proceed without me.
Never let it be said, though, that I am totally derelict in my duty. And so, courtesy of the computer information service, here is what the Canadian captain Sandra Schmirler had to say about the triumph. “We played a strong game and got off to a great start, but with the four-rock rule and Denmark having a great freeze weight, their rally put pressure on us.”
And on Joan McCusker’s critical three-rock clear in the 10th end, she said that it was a huge shot. Took all the pressure off. Quite so. Whatever a three-rock clear is. Or a four-rock rule. Or a freeze weight. I could look this up in a couple of books I have here, but I’m scared I’d fall asleep from tedium (or chardonnay) before I got to the right page because I look up at the bank of TV sets above my head and all I seem to see is curling.
It’s like women’s tennis used to be – on the box all day long and all night long, and as incredible as it might seem, even more mind-numbing. So, I’m sorry, but if you want to find out about curling you’ll have to ask somebody yourself. I refuse to have anything to do with a so-called sport that involves grown men and women sliding a large granite rock along an ice rink and then furiously sweeping the ice ahead so it will go faster or maybe that’s straighter
All I know is that the game (!!) was invented by the Scots, who also gave the world whisky, bagpipes, haggis and Billy Connolly. One way and another, they have a lot to answer for.
However, it’s not the only sport at the Winter Olympics designed to send you to sleep. Cross-country skiing is one. It’s tough to do but bland to watch. The guys from Channel 7 were talking the other night about the joys of commentating on it: “There’s a good stride. Followed by another good stride. Only 14.9 kilometres to go …”
Ice dancing is another one. It involves hours of elegant colours in their best finery waltzing and tangoing on skates with nothing to decide who’s best except the opinions of a judging panel – and if you believe the contestants, they’re all bent.
Biathlon is a mix of cross-country skiing – the competitors disappearing from sight for long periods, which is riveting – and rifle shooting, which is the most boring sport of the summer Olympics.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad. Bob-sledding is great to watch – for a few seconds – and the luge would be, too, if it had mixed doubles. It said in the paper the other day that the organisers do want that but no women have entered the pairs because the thinness of the clothing and the positioning of the pairs is just too redolent of, well, hard-core sex.
Ice hockey is a game with no rules except for survival of the toughest. It’s fast and furious and just the sort of sport that makes you wonder why it has never caught on in Australia.
Like curling, snowboarding is a new one – and a smarter one. The first gold medallist was accused of being half-shot on pot, which might be a hint for the curlers. Forget the four-rock rule and bring in the completely stoned rule and then it might get interesting.
And, of course, there is the king of the winter sports, downhill skiing. This is spectacular, dangerous, exhilarating and colourful, and the men’s event, where a third of the field came to grief, made Formula 1 car racing look like a ride on the merry-go-round.
It just goes to prove that in sport, as in life, it takes all types. So good luck to the curlers. But do they really have to rock around the clock?
So, back to 2018: maybe there is a reason why I was never assigned to cover a second winter Games. Certainly, in this more politically correct day and age you wouldn’t be encouraged to sledge – to employ an appropriate term – any sport to which people devote years of training, especially not one played by the ladies. So, I apologise, I suppose, for taking the mickey out of curling – but Alexander the not-so-great Russian has made it a bigger laughing stock than I ever could have.
Author: Ron Reed
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.