Do Olympic curlers need to be jacked and tan?

Over the weekend, the news broke that a Russian Olympic curler tested positive for meldonium, a substance that reportedly improves exercise capacity. The response was expected: why would a curler need performance enhancing drugs? It’s easy to dismiss the possibility of PEDs in low-impact sports like curling, but that overlooks the different types of PEDs available and the type of event the athlete was competing in.

Types of Events

Most of the curling I’ve watched during the Winter Olympics has been the 4-person teams. (Yep, I watch curling. I’m an Olympics fanatic.) The athlete in question competes in the 2-person mixed pairs event. Half the personnel means twice the work, and curling matches are long. The sport looks trivial on television, but it requires fine motor control and endurance. Improving your physical capacity and stamina will always give you better results. While I’m not accusing the athlete of doping, and I frankly don’t care if he does, doping in curling isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

Whenever there’s a competition and the stakes are higher than bragging rights, the possibility for doping exists.

Types of Performance Enhancing Drugs

A common misconception is that PEDs are only useful for making someone more muscular, or perhaps faster. The range of PEDs goes well beyond that. Some drugs, like EPO, stimulate red blood cell production. The increase in red blood cells allows more oxygen to be delivered. EPO can be useful for competitors in endurance events.

Other PEDs are may improve performance in more subtle ways. Beta blockers reduce blood pressure and also suppress the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as involuntary muscle movements, which could be key in sports requiring fine motor skills like curling, archery and shooting.

Is meldonium a viable PED for curling? It’s hard to say. Effectiveness of meldonium in improving athletic performance is still being debated. The clinical use of the drug is to treat coronary heart disease, but it is also used to treat symptoms of acute alcohol withdrawal.