IOC approves EPO tests for Sydney
LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) -- For any athlete thinking of using EPO to help win gold at the Sydney Olympics, the IOC had a message Tuesday: Don't.
In a long-awaited and much-debated step in the fight against doping, the IOC medical commission approved a double test for the hormone, believed to be one of the most abused drugs in sport. Any athlete at Sydney could be tested.
"We will be anywhere and at any time," commission chairman Prince Alexandre de Merode said.
If the blood and urine tests, developed by researchers in Australia and France, are approved by legal experts and the IOC executive board, at least 300 tests for EPO will be carried out before and during the Sydney Games, which run Sept. 15-Oct. 1.
Athletes found to be positive will be thrown out of the games, de Merode said.
Until now, there has been no test for EPO, or erythropoietin, believed to be used widely by athletes in endurance sports such as cycling and swimming.
The IOC, which stressed concerns that some athletes might receive a false positive test, had assessed chances of approving the tests at "50-50" before this week's two-day meeting of 15 experts.
The International Cycling Union decided not to approve the French test for this year's Tour de France, and critics expected the IOC to make a similar decision.
Patrick Schamasch, IOC medical director, said he was hopeful that the other IOC bodies would approve the test without much trouble.
"It is a three-level rocket and the first level and the ignition has gone very well," he said. "In a rocket, when the first level goes well, it is very unlikely that the second and third do not go well."
He added that he hoped the number of tests would be more than 300, possibly up to 700. They will be in addition to the 2,400 conventional doping tests the IOC intends to carry out.
About 10,000 athletes are expected in Sydney.
The EPO tests could begin as early as Sept. 2, when the IOC officially takes over responsibility for drug testing at the games.
Initially developed in the 1980s to treat anemia in kidney patients, EPO boosts the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells. Experts say it can improve performance by 10-15 percent.
In 1998, vials of the drug were found in an official vehicle of a Tour de France team, leading to the broadest drug scandal in the history of the world's top bike race.
"EPO has been the worst of the undetectable drugs that is prevalent in the sporting society," said John Boultbee, executive director of the Australian Institute of Sport. "Now those who cheat with EPO know that they should stop, or not come to Sydney, and those who don't cheat know that we have a level playing field."
Francoise Lasne, a French researcher who has worked on an EPO test for six years, said she was delighted.
"It is a big step but there will be more perfecting to do," she said. For instance, the test could be refined to detect EPO taken farther in the past.
The IOC has not specified exactly how athletes will be chosen for testing, and declined to say whether tests will be aimed particularly at sports where EPO is believed to be most widely used. It insists all athletes face the possibility of a test.
The exact scientific details of the combined blood and urine test are also being kept secret to avoid giving athletes a chance to beat the system. If one test provided a positive result and the other a negative result, the athlete would be considered negative.
Schamasch said athletes could not refuse to take a blood test, which will be used for the first time at the Olympics in Sydney.
"Participating in the games has never, never been compulsory," he said. "It is up to each athlete to decide if he wants to compete. And if he wants to compete he has to accept the rules of the competition."
Despite his delight at the approval of the EPO test, Schamasch conceded that there are still a number of prohibited substances for which there is no reliable test, including human growth hormone.
But he insisted that should not detract from Tuesday's agreement.
"The final victory against doping needs to go in steps," he said. "Many steps build stairs, and at the top of the stairs is heaven."