IOC to decide on new drug test
LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) -- After years of frustrating delays, false hopes and inconclusive research, the race to find a valid test for one of sport's most abused performance-enhancing drugs is reaching a climax.
With fewer than 50 days until the opening of the Sydney Games, Olympic medical and legal experts meet starting Monday to decide whether to introduce a test for the banned endurance-boosting hormone erythropoietin, or EPO.
The stakes are high.
With the credibility of world records and outstanding performances in track and field, swimming, cycling and other sports eroded by suspicions of drug use, Olympic leaders are under pressure to stop the cheaters.
Two tests, a urine-based control developed in France and a blood-sampling method devised in Australia, will be reviewed by an International Olympic Committee panel Monday and Tuesday to determine whether they meet scientific and legal standards for use in Sydney.
The French and Australian researchers will present their tests to a 15-member panel made of IOC medical officials and seven outside experts.
Both tests have been published in international scientific journals, the first step in the validation process. But whether they have been replicated by further testing and can withstand challenges in the courts remains uncertain.
"The new system must be 100 per cent sure," IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch told The Associated Press in an interview this week. "If it is not 100 per cent sure, it's not possible."
Jacques Rogge, vice chairman of the IOC medical commission, said the chances are "50-50" that one or both tests will be approved, the same odds he quoted several months ago.
"The ideal solution would be the acceptance of both tests," Rogge said. "We could have one, we could have both, or we could have none."
Arne Ljungqvist, the top anti-doping official of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, is even more cautious.
"The trouble is we're running out of time," he said. "If we want to be recognized, we have to do things properly and that takes time."
No test until now has been able to detect the use of EPO, which stimulates the production of red blood cells, thereby carrying extra oxygen to the muscles.
Experts say the drug, especially popular in endurance events such as cycling and distance running, can improve performance by 10-15 per cent.
However, heavy use of EPO can also lead to blood clots and other complications. The drug has been blamed for the deaths of numerous professional cyclists the past 20 years.
Initially developed to treat kidney patients, EPO came to international prominence in 1998 when vials of the drug were found in an official car of the Tour de France bicycle race.
With an increased focus on doping in the buildup to the Sydney Olympics, the IOC has fast-tracked procedures to clear the way for an EPO test to be in place when the games open Sept. 15.
The French test, developed at the national anti-doping laboratory in Chatenay-Malabry, outside Paris, uses urine samples to differentiate synthetic EPO from EPO naturally produced in the body.
The test, published in the esteemed medical journal Nature in June, can only detect the use of EPO going back three days.
Tour de France organizers had hoped to introduce the test for this summer's race but held off, citing the need for further validation. Instead, samples were taken from riders and frozen for analysis later when the new test has been fully endorsed.
Rogge said the test required further trials on different racial and ethnic groups, as well as athletes who live or train at high altitude or use oxygen chambers. Also, the test had to be replicated by a second lab, which has since been done by the lab in Sydney.
"There has been progress since the Tour de France decision," Rogge said. "We've had two months and I hope we have enough validation. One of the conditions is already fulfilled."
While the French test offers direct proof of EPO use, the Australian blood test gives only an "indirect" indication of EPO.
The test, published in the journal Haematologica and devised by scientists at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra, can indicate EPO use going back several weeks.
However, the test produced a false positive result in its initial testing of 189 samples.
"We want to know what the possibility of a false positive result is," Rogge said. "That's the question mark. If a false positive percentage is significant, then of course we can't accept it. It opens the doors for appeals."
One option, Rogge said, is to use the Australian test as an initial screening.
"Both tests are very nice combined," he said. "We could use the Australian test to identify any samples that are suspect, then submit them to the urine test."
But the French test's three-day detection window could pose a problem.
"You could have a positive blood test and a negative urine test," Rogge said.
Even if the IOC decides Tuesday not to accept either test, Rogge said it won't necessarily be the final word.
"If some further validation is needed between Aug. 1 and Sept. 15, we could think of a scenario where there would be further checks or controls," he said.