The International Olympic Committee (IOC) first began to conduct doping tests on athletes at the 1968 Mexico Olympics.
The move was prompted by the televised death of British cyclist Tommy Simpson as he climbed Mont Ventoux during the 1967 Tour de France. Simpson’s use of amphetamines was held as a contributory cause of his fatality.
Fifty years later, three athletes have already been caught for doping at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. The most interesting of the three is Aleksandr Krushelnitckii who won bronze with his wife in the mixed curling event at the Games.
Sub-editors around the world have delighted in noting that the “broom and stone” sport of curling has been “rocked” by the allegations.
The construction of the case against Krushelnitckii seems straightforward; his routine doping sample has come back positive for the prohibited substance meldonium. It is the same substance used by Maria Sharapova and for which she was banned for 15 months.
Although Krushelnitckii left the Olympic village without comment, it seems his defence willbe that a fellow competitor — disgruntled at having not been selected to go to the Olympics — spiked or sabotaged his drink with the prohibited substance.
The burden of proof with this defence will be on Krushelnitckii. The “someone spiked my drink” defence is rarely credibly argued in doping cases and even more seldom successful.
In the build-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, an Indian wrestler, Narsingh Yadav, tried the “sabotage by another” defence to explain a positive test for a steroid.
The World Anti-Doping Agency said that the prohibited substance in question would not have dissolved fully, and Yadav would with a cursory check have noticed sediment in his drink bottle.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) imposed a four-year ban. It argued that any athlete trying to undermine the scientific integrity of a positive test needs more than vague, circumstantial assertions that persons unknown, at a time unknown, had conspired to sabotage their sample.
Nonetheless, athletes have, on occasion, mounted successful sabotage defences.
The most-celebrated example at CAS was that of Belgian judoka Charline Van Snick.
She tested positive for cocaine at the 2013 World Championships and faced a two-year ban, but claimed that someone must have sabotaged her drink bottle with the substance.
Given Van Snick’s reputation, there was considerable surprise in judo at the finding, akin to hearing that a teetotaller had been arrested for drink-driving.
At CAS, she provided detailed toxicology reports showing she was not a habitual user of the drug. This evidence, combined with the spiked bottle’s testing results, was enough to clear her of wrongdoing.
The only other examples of the “spiking” defence being successful are where the athlete has specific evidence against another person — usually a rival or disaffected member of that athlete’s entourage — who had the motive and access to carry out the act.
A very recent example of this occurred last month. One of Japan’s top sprint canoeists, 32-year-old Yasuhiro Suzuki, was banned for eight years for spiking a younger rival’s drink with an anabolic steroid.
The rivalry between the two had, by all accounts, intensified as their preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics began in earnest.
The sabotage defence is equivalent to doping cases in horse racing where the defence to a positive test by a trainer is that his horse was “nobbled”.
British horseracing recently had a major case on just this very issue involving trainer Hughie Morrison.
A horse trained by Morrison tested positive at a meeting in Wolverhampton in
January of last year. Morrison faced a maximum ten-year suspension.
He argued that given his previous clean record and the tight security at his stables, the horse must have been given the drug by persons unknown while at the race meeting.
Controversially, he pointed towards a list of persons whom he thought held a grudge against him, including another trainer. He even offered a reward and hired a private detective as part of his case.
Although the disciplinary panel found that Morrison’s specific accusations against another trainer were entirely unfounded, his defence was largely accepted.
The ramifications of the success of that defence for racing in the UK and Ireland — and even here in Australia where there is a major horse doping scandal involving the Melbourne Cup — will be of interest in the coming months.
Returning to Krushelnitckii, many will probably roll their eyes at his purported defence and dismiss it as just another athlete’s doping excuse.
The excuses used by athletes over the years stretch credibility — too much sex; ingesting by French kissing; blaming a lost twin; contaminated cough sweets; over application of lip balm; and in the case of tennis player Marin Cilic and Australian cricketer Shane Warne, the ultimate — it was my mammy’s fault.
On Krushelnitckii, there is, nevertheless, something odd about his positive test.
He competed in Pyeongchang as an Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR).
This is the term the IOC has given to the 160 or so Russian athletes deemed eligible to compete despite the continuing suspension of the Russian Olympic Committee over doping allegations at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
All those on the OAR team would have known they would be subject to enhanced testing in the immediate weeks prior to, and during, the Olympics.
And Krushelnitckii was, it seems, independently tested at the end of January at a training camp in Japan before his departure to Pyeongchang. The results were negative.
OAR participants would also have been acutely aware that they were part of a sophisticated political choreography between Russia and the IOC, which it is claimed may even have resulted in athletes entering the closing ceremony under the Russian flag and in the national uniform. Krushelnitckii’s positive test now puts pressure on the IOC not to allow this.
And the closing ceremony in Pyeongchang was an opportunity for Russia to draw a line under the past four years of doping allegations, in a year when it hosts another big sporting event — the Fifa World Cup.
Finally, on Tuesday when Krushelnitckii’s B sample confirmed the positive finding, Norway, population 5.2m, sat on top of the Winter Olympics’ medal table.
Indeed, if Krushelnitckii’s case is proven, the bronze medal in mixed curling will go to Norway.
Norway and Russia have been at loggerheads for a while on the issue of
doping. The Norwegian FA has, for example, stated that Russia should be forbidden from hosting the World Cup later this year and the Norwegian press has ridiculed the Russians for having to dope even its curlers.
Russia retaliated, highlighting that Norway’s delegation brought around 6,000 doses of asthma medication to the 2018 Games — equating to 55 doses for every Norwegian athlete.
Sometimes it’s hard to know who or what to believe on doping in sport or even why to bother.
And then you look back on Tommy Simpson swaying from side to side in the heat on a French mountain pass with pills in his back pocket.
Dying to win.
Jack Anderson is professor of sports law at the University of Melbourne. An earlier version
of this article appeared in The Conversation.
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