GANGNEUNG (REUTERS) - A Russian Olympic medallist has left the Pyeongchang Winter Games on suspicion of doping, a team official said on Monday (Feb 19), in a scandal that has shocked his team-mates and could imperil Russia's efforts to regain full Olympic status.
Alexander Krushelnitsky, who competes in curling, one of the Games' least physically taxing sports, is suspected of testing positive for meldonium, a banned substance that increases blood flow and improves exercise capacity.
Asked for an update on the case, Russian delegation spokesman Konstantin Vybornov told Reuters the athlete had surrendered his Games accreditation and left the Olympic village while awaiting the result of a second sample later on Monday.
He later denied having referred to any individual by name. But Russian women's curling coach Sergei Belanov replied to reporters' questions about Krushelnitsky, dismissing the idea that a "young, clever man" would use drugs in a sport where they would produce "no benefits".
"It's stupid, but Alexander is not stupid, so I don't believe it," Belanov said.
Krushelnitsky won bronze with his wife Anastasia Bryzgalova in mixed-doubles curling in Pyeongchang. He has not responded to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has launched a doping procedure against Krushelnitsky. The court said no hearing date had been fixed yet and no further information would be provided for the moment.
The International Olympic Committee said on Monday that any doping violation would be decided by the CAS and that a decision would come very quickly after analysis of a B sample.
Russia's curling federation has also launched an "emergency commission" to investigate the doping case, federation president Dmitry Svishchev told Reuters.
He said the Russian curlers had been tested on Jan 22 before flying out to South Korea and the tests were negative.
"I have known these guys for many years. Only a crazy person takes banned substances before a competition, before the Olympics," Svishchev said on Sunday night when the news first broke. "It's a strange story. It raises a lot of questions."
News of a possible doping violation have shocked the sport of curling, where steady hands and sharp eyes outweigh physical fitness.
Russia has been accused of running a state-backed, systematic doping programme for years, an allegation Moscow denies. As a result, its athletes are competing at Pyeongchang as neutral "Olympic Athletes from Russia" (OAR), and banned from using their national flag or anthem.
The Russians had been hoping that a clean record at Pyeongchang would persuade the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to allow them to march at the closing ceremony on Feb 25 with the Russian flag and in national uniform.
If confirmed, the violation would be considered by the IOC's OAR Implementation panel, the body in charge of monitoring the OAR team's behaviour at the Games.
The World Anti-Doping Agency banned meldonium with effect from January 2016, deeming it performance-enhancing because it enabled users to carry more oxygen to muscle tissue, something of benefit to endurance athletes in particular.
Former world tennis No. 1 Maria Sharapova of Russia was barred from competition for 15 months after testing positive. In total, more than 170 athletes, including over 40 Russians, have tested positive for the drug since it was banned.