By JOHN PYE -- Associated Press
SYDNEY, Australia -- While athletes preparing for the Sydney 2000 Olympics focus on getting ready for the games, Australian researchers are racing to produce a blood test to catch drugs cheats.
The blood tests, designed to detect EPO, or erythropoietin, have hit two recent hurdles, but researchers are still giving themselves a 50-50 chance of having the test implemented before the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee is scheduled to meet July 31-Aug. 1 in Lausanne, Switzerland, to review the blood test and a French-developed urine test for the performance-enhancing EPO, which is undetectable using conventional doping methods.
EPO is a hormone that boosts production of oxygen-rich red blood cells in the body and, injected in synthetic form, has reportedly been widespread in endurance events including cycling and long-distance running.
IOC executive Jacques Rogge spoke with Australian Institute of Sports scientists during a visit to Australia this week and said the research, being co-funded by the IOC and the Australian government, was progressing well.
"If the test is validated (in Lausanne), of course it will be implemented before the Olympics," he said Friday. "We're fast-tracking everything and we're pushing hard to have it ... but I can't guarantee that we will have a test before the games."
AIS director John Boultbee said scientists at his facility in Canberra were preparing a final submission to present to the IOC.
"Without pre-empting what the research findings tell us, we feel confident we can make the deadline," he said.
French scientists failed in their bid to have the urine test for EPO validated before the Tour de France, the annual cycling race that starts Saturday.
But IOC medical director Patrick Schamasch said the International Cycling Union's delay in approving the urine test "in no way endangers the IOC's agenda" to have a valid EPO test introduced before the Olympics.
The AIS is working in conjunction with the Australian Sports Drug Testing Laboratory, while other research is being conducted in Spain, Norway and Canada.
Dr. Rymantas Kazlauskas, director of the Australians Sports Drug Testing Laboratory at Pymble in suburban north Sydney, where doping samples will be analyzed during the games, said fast-tracking didn't mean researchers were cutting corners.
"Everything will be checked and cross checked ... it's got to be done properly," he said. "We can fast-track some of the peer reviews by getting experts together to get critical decisions now, and not when they feel like it. Things have to happen now, not in due course."
Kazlauskas said baseline studies and the collection of 1,200 specimen samples were being conducted worldwide at various altitudes and on a full range of ethnic backgrounds to eliminate the prospect of the test producing false positives.
The simple act of research was probably a good deterrent for potential cheats, he said.
"Any athlete coming here needs to assume blood testing is going to be implemented."
Kazlauskas said the blood test would not prevent athletes from trying to use other steroids or performance-enhancing drugs, but because there was no blood test available "there's a lot more mystique" about the EPO test.