ATHLETICS: Blood tests may be introduced at marathons

NEXT APRIL'S London Marathon, which will include both Tegla Loroupe and Khalid Khannouchi, the two African-born runners who broke the world records for the classic distance this year, could be the first major international road race to introduce mandatory blood tests for its elite field.

AIMS, the international road race organisation, which covers 125 races from more than 50 countries - including the world's biggest marathons in New York, Chicago, Boston, Rotterdam, Berlin and London - agreed at its annual congress in Kosice, Slovakia, last month, to introduce blood tests to counter the possible use of EPO, the blood-boosting drug which remains undetectable by usual methods of doping control through urine tests.

"No one wants to see marathon running descending into the same state that professional cycling is in, where everyone seems to be on EPO," one of the congress delegates said. "The only way to prevent EPO use is to have blood tests."

EPO is a naturally occurring hormone that helps improve the blood's oxygen- carrying capacity, thus dramatically improving an athlete's endurance. Research suggests that EPO can immediately boost an athlete's performance by 10 per cent - which could amount to an improvement of more than 10 minutes over the 26.2 miles of a marathon.

Rapid improvement in marathon performances has raised suspicions of EPO use. In 1987, two years before synthetic EPO went on the market, only two men managed to run inside 2hr 10min. In each of the last three years, 50 or more men have run sub-2:10.

The International Cycling Union introduced blood tests last year. The tests do not detect EPO use, but measure the percentage of red blood cells, or haematocrit level. A rider with a haematocrit level of 50 per cent or greater can be suspended on health grounds, as happened with the 1998 Tour de France champion Marco Pantani when leading this year's Giro d'Italia.

Alan Storey, the London Marathon's race director, "felt that athletes would accept blood testing if it was a condition for them to receive any financial rewards".