Lee Banville couldn’t resist.
“I’ve been waiting for this call about doping in curling,” the assistant professor at the University of Montana journalism school quipped Monday.
A curling devotee on the local scene since he caught the fever watching the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Banville understands the bewilderment over why on earth an Olympic curler would need a performance-enhancing drug.
On Monday, Alexander Krushelnitsky of Russia stood to be stripped of the bronze medal that he and his wife, Anastasia Bryzgalova, won last week at the Pyeongchang Games in South Korea in mixed doubles after testing positive for meldonium.
“I will say that there is a reason to dope during curling,” Banville said. “It comes down to sweeping. Sweeping rocks can add up to 10 feet to the distance, and you can also change the trajectory.”
To the uninitiated who regard the sport as shuffleboard on ice, it should be noted that Olympic curlers are working with 150 feet of ice. That means propelling a 44-pound stone along a sheet that’s half a football field long, or nearly the length of a hockey rink between nets.
It’s a high-stakes game of tension and millimeters.
“You can really control the rock well if you’re a good sweeper,” said Banville. “Being good entails putting all your weight on the brush, which is hard to do, and moving it back and forth at an incredibly high rate of speed.”
Add to that the fact that Olympians in the medal hunt play upward of nine games in five days, each lasting almost 2½ hours.
“You’re sweeping and walking, trying to stay sharp,” said Banville. “It’s an endurance game at that level.”
He saw the Russian pair win bronze and noticed Krushelnitsky especially.
“Many of the commentators, and watching myself, we were blown away by how good he was at sweeping,” Banville said. “I would say it’s surprising but not that shocking that this is actually happening.”
Meldonium, also known as mildronate, is the drug to which tennis pro Maria Sharapova tested positive in 2016 and was banned for 15 months.
Developed in Latvia in 1970, it’s available over the counter in Russia and other former Soviet bloc and Eastern European countries. It was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in January 2016. It’s not licensed by the Food and Drug Administration in the United States, in part because the long-term effects of its use haven’t been adequately studied.
Shortly after the ban of meldonium, there were more than 170 failed tests, the Associated Press reported Monday. Almost all were from Eastern European countries, and they included Olympic medalists in sports ranging from figure skating to wrestling.
“Almost all of the early cases were dropped when athletes insisted they had stopped taking meldonium in 2015, before it was banned,” the AP said.
No less an authority than Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that meldonium does not enhance athletic performance but “simply keeps the heart muscle in good condition under high strain.” Putin stopped short in 2016 of saying the ban had political implications, though others in his government suggested it unfairly targets athletes in the countries where it’s widely available.
“I won’t pretend to be a medical expert,” said Banville, “but my understanding is it increases blood flow to the muscles and the brain. What it does is it just helps with stamina. You can maintain a level of muscle performance that you wouldn’t be able to maintain without it.”
That makes sense in Olympics-level curling, because while sweeping is done in outbursts, “you’re doing it over multiple hours, multiple games a day, and multiple days,” Banville said.
Still, even the pros in South Korea were questioning how performance-enhancers could make their way into the curling world.
“What can you take in curling that can make you a better curler?” wondered Eve Muirhead, skip of the Great Britain women’s team, wondered to the BBC. (A "skip" is comparable to a captain.)
“With us it’s not faster, higher, stronger; it’s about being more accurate,” Russian curler Viktoria Moiseeva said to the Telegraph. “I can’t imagine what kind of drugs you could use in curling, so it’s very hard to believe.”
Banville compared recreational and Olympic curling to the duffer playing nine holes on the weekend versus a golfer on the professional tour.
“I would say our drug of choice is beer, and historically it has done very little to improve performance,” he joked. “It’s performance-depressing.”
Curling, Banville said, is “an oddly mesmerizing sport to watch on TV.”
Like many people in 2010 — and presumably in 2018 — he watched the Olympic curling competition and thought, “I think I can do that.”
“So I went to the first Learn to Curl event ever hosted in Missoula, and I’ve been helping run the club since then,” he said.
At the time of the Misoula Curling Club's formation, Whitefish had the only other one in Montana. Eight years later, other curling clubs have sprung up in Billings, Bozeman, Butte and Havre. One is just getting off the ground in Great Falls, Banville said, and Polson fields a couple of teams.
The Missoula league, which plays and practices on Glacier Ice’s outdoor rink at the county fairgrounds, has nearly three dozen teams. Hellgate High School has a couple of teams, and Sentinel fields one. This week some 400 students from Sentinel physical education classes will be spending their gym time on ice, pushing and sweeping the 44-pound stones toward a “button” in the middle of three concentric rings called the “house.”
Banville said 250 people came to the fairgrounds Saturday for the latest Olympic Learn to Curl event, which also involved figure skating and hockey.
There’ll be another curling-specific event for beginners on March 3, during the club’s weekly ice time — 9 p.m. to midnight on Saturdays.