Olympic alert as performance drugs stolen

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The Independent Online

Australian police fear that the black market could be flooded with a performance-enhancing drug, EPO, in the run-up to the Sydney Olympics, after 1,000 syringes containing the drug were stolen from a hospital yesterday.

Australian police fear that the black market could be flooded with a performance-enhancing drug, EPO, in the run-up to the Sydney Olympics, after 1,000 syringes containing the drug were stolen from a hospital yesterday.

The syringes, estimated to be worth millions of pounds if sold illegally to athletes, were stolen from the medical storeroom at Alice Springs hospital, in central Australia. Investigating detectives said that steroids were also taken during the raid.

EPO, or erythropoietin, was originally developed to help kidney transplant patients. It boosts the production of red blood cells in the body, enhancing the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood and enabling cyclists and other endurance athletes to race harder for longer.

Despite its legitimate medical uses, the drug is on the International Olympic Committee's list of banned substances for athletes. When the synthetic form is injected, it is undetectable using conventional doping tests, but haematocrit testing, which determines the percentage of oxygen-carrying red cells in the blood, can indicate the probability that EPO has been used. In cycling, if a rider's reading is greater than 50 per cent, he is excluded from racing because of the danger of his blood clotting.

The extent of EPO abuse has largely been anecdotal. But during the 1998 Tour de France, large caches of the drug, as well as another popular and undetectable drug, human growth hormone, were found in a cycling team car by French customs. Olympic officials agree that EPO, and to a smaller extent the growth hormone, is the drug of choice of many athletes.

The drug can have vicious side effects. Up to 20 cyclists are believed to have died in their sleep from heart attacks in the 1980s when experimenting with the dosages.

Australian scientists - who are anxious for the Games to be as drug-free as possible - have devised a blood test to detect EPO and are scheduled to present it to the IOC's independent medical panel for assessment in Lausanne, Switzerland, today. They are confident that the blood test will be validated by the IOC and introduced before the Olympics, which begin on 15 September.

The French, who are conducting separate research on a test that will use urine samples, will also make a presentation to the panel.

The IOC has never sanctioned the use of blood samples to conduct doping tests. Instead, it relies on athletes to provide urine samples for testing.

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