Athletics: Pinto on the attack over drug allegations

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ANTONIO PINTO, Portugal's European 10,000 metres champion, yesterday answered allegations of doping abuse levelled at him by Britain's top distance runner, Jon Brown. Speaking during the build-up for Sunday's London Marathon, which both men will race, Pinto dismissed Brown's claim, made after his European victory in Budapest, that he had illegally enhanced his performance by taking the blood booster Erythropoietin (EPO).

Pinto, who set new personal bests for 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000m last year at the age of 32, as well as finishing third in the London Marathon, said that he had beaten Brown "fair and square" in Budapest.

"Two weeks later, he beat me fair and square in Brussels, when he set a British 10,000m record. Do I need to say anything else?

"I have been running for more than 15 years. When I was 20 I reached the final at the Seoul Olympics, and I have performed at every major championship since. Jon Brown - I only heard of him two years ago."

Brown has repeatedly voiced his opinion over the last year that many performances in distance running have been achieved through the illegal use of EPO.

After the European Championship trials in Birmingham last summer, he pointed an accusing finger at European nations with a traditional involvement in professional cycling, alleging that doctors assisted those in both sports to manipulate their performances illegally. He has since described marathon running as being "saturated with drugs".

Brown's outspoken comments are made against a background of steeply improving performances in international marathons. Eleven runners recorded times faster than 2hr 08min in 1998, and eight the year before. In the eight previous years that feat was achieved just five times.

Whether this improvement is down to improved funding, rising prize-money or illegal activity is a point that is likely to be debated long and hard. Brown, clearly, believes the answer is a simple one - EPO, which provides extra red blood cells to improve oxygen capacity and endurance, something clearly beneficial to performers in endurance sports.

Pinto himself was embroiled in controversy last year when comments were ascribed to him in which he cast doubt on the legality of training methods used by Spanish distance runners. He said that he had been misquoted.

Pinto's manager, Luis Felipe Posso, who acts for other leading marathon runners such as the Brazilian world record- holder Ronaldo Da Costa, three-times London winner Dionicio Ceron and Olympic champion Josia Thugwane, added his own views in Pinto's defence. "By Brown's argument, if Pinto used EPO to beat him in Budapest, then what did Brown use to improve so much two weeks later?

"I honestly believe Brown is capable of running 2:07 for the marathon on Sunday. But to do that he will have to focus and believe in himself instead of concentrating on other runners in the field."

Asked if he shared Brown's view that EPO was as big a factor in marathon running today as it has been in professional cycling, Pinto replied: "I have no idea. Until someone is caught and an offence is proven you cannot say. Let Jon Brown say what he wants. Until I know I cannot comment."

Pinto is strongly in favour of introducing blood testing into the sport. "I think it would be great," he said, "because it would put everyone on the same level. In cycling they are already doing it. I hope all sports will eventually do the same."

Alan Storey, general manager of the London Marathon, believes that blood testing cannot be introduced without the active support of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, particularly over the question of setting medical parameters.

"Most people in the sport would like to see all the changes necessary to make sure everyone is competing on a level playing field," Storey said. "But even if we could take blood samples, we would still need to employ medical expertise to decide what those samples meant and what the levels should be. It would not be a cheap operation and it is simply beyond the capabilities of a set of marathon organisers.

"This is something that has to be initiated by the IAAF, although they may be encouraged privately and publicly by national federations."