By Gabrielle Tetrault-Farber
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Russia hopes a doping case at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will not hurt its campaign for full restoration of its Olympic status, the Russian sports minister said on Wednesday, on the eve of a formal hearing into the case.
Russians are competing as neutral athletes at the Games due to allegations the country ran a systematic doping program, which Moscow denies. They had hoped a clean slate at Pyeongchang would help reclaim their Olympic status.
However, news emerged this week that a medal-winning Russian curler, Alexander Krushelnitsky, had tested positive for the banned substance meldonium, a case that is set to be heard on Thursday by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
The positive test not only shocked the Russian team but the wider curling community whose sport calls for steady hands, sharp eyes and mild exertion, not the intense physical activity and endurance more associated with the use of meldonium.
"Let's not make any assessments. Let's not call it a provocation, not say that someone spiked something," Russian Sports Minister Pavel Kolobkov told reporters in Moscow.
"We just need to elucidate what happened. It's an unpleasant situation. I hope this will not influence the decision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on February 24 on the return of Russia into the Olympic family."
The IOC has said it may allow Russian athletes to shed their neutral status and march behind the national flag at the closing ceremony on Sunday, a symbol of renewed Olympic status.
Krushelnitsky, who won bronze in Pyeongchang with his wife in mixed doubles curling, has denied taking banned substances.
The Russian Olympic delegation in Pyeongchang has launched an investigation into the case and has said it cannot explain how meldonium got into Krushelnitsky's body.
(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber in Pyeongchang and Moscow bureau,; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Ed Osmond)