As has already been widely reported, the Omsk Regional Public Prosecutor’s Office announced Thursday that it had completed the criminal investigation into the death of Rangers prospect Alexei Cherepanov, who died while playing in a KHL game in the Moscow suburb of Chekhov on October 13, 2008. Their investigation found no evidence to support criminal charges against team doctors, and ruled Cherepanov’s death an accident, concluding that doctors had no way of detecting that the 19-year old suffered from chronic myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle most often caused by a viral infection.
According to their findings, Cherepanov suffered from the condition for between six months to a year and a half, but hid any symptoms he might have been experiencing from team doctors, presumably so that he would not be prevented from playing hockey.
Regarding the discovery in Cherepanov’s blood of the drug cordiamin (a.k.a. cordiaminum) — a cardio-respiratory stimulant that may have been used to treat Cherepanov’s condition, but is also on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of banned substances — the prosecutor’s office reported that they had found no evidence that the drug had been administered by team doctors, suggesting Cherepanov had acquired and injected it independently.
I’m willing to accept that the nature of the disease would prevent even the most competent doctors from uncovering it through the standard medical examination done on a hockey player prior to the start of the season. What I’m not willing to accept, is that Cherepanov circumvented team doctors and self-treated himself with a substance which could have resulted in him being banned from international competition when one of his main goals last season was to make Russia’s senior national team — a goal he achieved the day he died. Does this look like a photo of a kid who’s covertly injecting himself with something that no one’s supposed to know about? Does this look like something he could have done alone, with no one finding out, while on the road, three hours prior to the start of the game in which he died — which is when the Federal prosecutor concluded the drug had been administered? (Caveat: Both photos, which show Cherepanov being administered an IV in what appears to be a hotel room, were provided to investigators by the Cherepanov family, which claimed to have received them from Cherepanov himself. The photos are undated, however, and offer no actual proof of what is being injected.)
In January, the KHL, acting on the results of the investigation done by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Moscow and those of their own independent inquiry, opted to suspend Avangard’s doctors, general manager, and president, citing their negligence in the Cherepanov tragedy. At the time, the KHL’s top doc, Nikolai Durmanov, indicated that the league had proof that team doctors knew that Cherepanov was unwell and had attempted to treat him with the cordiamin that was found in his blood:
One of the main questions which faced us was: â€œDid the doctors know about Cherepanovâ€™s illness?â€ The Avangard doctors tried to convince us that, no [they did not]. According to them, indisposition [minor illness] is a normal condition for an athlete. We have materials confirming that they knew about Alexeiâ€™s illness. Most likely, they did not understand the whole seriousness of his condition â€” such matters can be resolved only by skilled cardiologists. The doctors of Avangard tried to treat him with their own knowledge. What was called in the press a systematic taking of performance enhancing substances were attempts at treatment.
KHL Vice President of Hockey Operations Vladimir Shalaev, echoed Durmanov’s conclusion, and shared his belief that those involved would face criminal prosecution:
We are convinced that the guilty persons have displayed criminal negligence in the performance of their official duties. Our sanctions are severe, but we are assured that the Offices of the Public Prosecutor of the Omsk and Chekhov regions will still pass their own judgments on the proceedings in question. I believe that the guilty will suffer not only sports-related, but also criminal punishment.
Following Thursday’s announcement that no charges would be filed, Cherepanov’s mother, Margarita Cherepanov, responded to the suggestion that Cherepanov hid symptoms from team doctors and sought treatment on his own, and vowed to appeal the prosecutor’s decision:
My son was perfectly healthy! He didn’t do anything without the advice of the team’s doctor. If he even had a common headache, he called the team doctor and asked what medicine he could take. He was very serious about that. Those who looked after my son’s health are guilty in this tragedy. They told me that he played his last games with a temperature [a symptom of myocarditis]. And now they try to put all blame on my son. As long as I live, I won’t drop this. We will appeal the results of the investigation.
The KHL has been demonized by the North American hockey press, but in this instance, I’ll gladly take their word over that of a Russian regional government office. Especially when that office works for a regional governor who also happens to be the man who makes most of the decisions for the team who’s doctors were cleared by their report. That’s right, Leonid Polezhaev is not only the governor of the Omsk region, but the chairman of Avangard Omsk’s Board of Directors, a big supporter of the club, and the man responsible for attracting the majority of the team’s financial backers.
In the end, the prosecutor’s office in Omsk has wrapped the investigation up in the most convenient way possible: Anyone in a position of power who might be guilty is exonerated, those associated with the governor’s pet project are cleared of all responsibility, and a dead kid who can’t defend himself takes the blame. Welcome to Russia, where the more things change, the more they stay the same.
A separate investigation into the medical response (or lackthereof) at the arena in Chekhov, which is being handled by the local prosecutor’s office there, is still underway.
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