Something about the Olympics brings out the conspiratorial suspicions of athletes, coaches and fans. Underage Chinese gymansts; over-scored Russian figure skaters; goalpost-moving American goalies; even NBC, in one of the most cravenly unnecessary hours of television not aired on the E! Network, dedicated a significant portion of their Sunday broadcast to a 20-year-old figure skating scandal.
But perhaps the most heart-wrenching controversy of the Sochi Games came on the last day of competition, just hours before Sweden and Canada were set to face off in the Gold Medal game of the men’s hockey tournament.
Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom, listed in the starting lineup of the Canada-Sweden tilt, was absent from the pregame skate. He had been deemed ineligible to play because he tested positive for a banned substance: a high level of pseudoephedrine, a stimulant and decongestant found in an allergy medication which Backstrom has taken intermittently for the past seven years. The IOC’s maximum acceptable level for pseudoephedrine is 150 micrograms per milliliter. Backstrom’s level was 190. So instead of getting ready to take the ice with his teammates, Backstrom found himself in a disciplinary hearing with International Olympic Committee officials.
Before the Olypmics, Swedish and International Ice Hockey Federation doctors discussed Backstrom’s allergy medication and incorrectly concluded that his one pill a day dose wouldn’t put him over the IOC’s limit. Their miscalculation may have cost the 26-year-old Olympian his silver medal.
Backstrom isn’t the first Olympian to be punished for the use of pseudoephedrine. The substance, banned by the IOC until 2004 and then put back on the banned list in 2010, cost a Romanian gymnast her gold medal at the 2000 Sydney games. A coach gave her two pills for a cold. In 2010, the IOC reprimanded another hockey player, New York Islanders defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky of Slovakia, for his use of the substance. Visnovsky was not disqualified from playing, though, because he was allowed to resubmit his results and the levels went down.
Here is where a potential conspiracy theory starts to take shape. Backstrom, who was given the test on Wednesday, should have had the opportunity to resubmit since, according to the Swedish and International Ice Hockey Federations, the turnaround for such a test is usually 48 hours. Instead, four days later and two hours before the biggest game of his career, he abruptly found out he would not be playing.
Now some Swedish officials are claiming that the Olympic governing body wanted to hold up Backstrom as a high-profile example for would-be dopers. That’s a vicious accusation considering the consequences for Backstrom, but Swedish GM Tommy Boustedt seems to believe the IOC is capable of such wickedness.
“I think the timing is awful. We should have the results within 48 hours,” Boustedt, quoted in Sochi by Scott Burnside of ESPN, said. “My suspicion is it’s political. They waited until the final day of competition to make the biggest impact on you journalists. They need examples to show the whole sport world that [they] don’t accept doping.”
So the issue is not whether or not Backstrom doped (technically, he did), or if he intended to enhance his performance (impossible for the IOC to determine and, therefore, irrelevant). The controversy lies in how the IOC handled Backstrom’s test results. At best the IOC was incompetent and careless and, if you agree with Boustedt, at worst it timed the release of the tests for maximum effect and drama. The IOC has not decided whether or not Backstrom will receive a silver medal and has provided no comment on the timing of his disqualification other than to say that they had an abundance of tests to process.
The silver lining for Backstrom is that he leaves this nightmare in Sochi as it is unlikely to affect the remainder of his NHL season.
“Subject to confirmation of the facts as we understand them, and given the fact that the substance is neither prohibited in the NHL nor was used in an improper manner here, we do not anticipate there being any consequences relative to Nicklas’ eligibility to participate in games for the Washington Capitals,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said in a statement released on Sunday.
Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates, whose native Canada defended their title as Olympic champions on Sunday, expressed his sympathy and support for Backstrom after the Capitals morning practice.
“It’s an innocent blunder but it’s still a blunder,” Oates said. “I feel for him because it’s a game he obviously wanted to play. He’s been a big contributor for that team, and it’s the biggest game of his career maybe to date. And he can’t play for that? That’s terrible.”