Drugs in sport: Britain aims to take lead in war on drugs

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TWO OF Britain's top sports could lead the world in the fight against drug abuse by introducing compulsory blood testing. Officials from cycling and athletics are considering the move, which would revolutionise doping controls by making possible the identification of previously undetectable substances.

Such an initiative would enhance the public reputations of the two sports, which have been sullied by allegations of widespread drug-taking, and could also act as a spur to the international governing bodies. While the introduction of worldwide sporting blood tests has been debated for nearly a decade, international bodies are no closer to introducing the policy.

As was shown during the Tour de France, where drug tests failed to detect users but raids by police and customs uncovered widespread possession of banned substances, current doping control procedures are inadequate for catching cheats.

Two performance-enhancing substances - human growth hormone (HGH) and erythropoietin (EPO) - are now believed to be in widespread use. They are undetectable under conventional urine drug tests.

Growth hormone has an anabolic, body-building effect on the body, allowing a competitor to do more heavy training, or to recover more quickly from injury. EPO enhances the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood, thereby improving performance in endurance events.

At last month's European athletics championships in Budapest Jon Brown, after finishing fourth for Britain in the 10,000m final, made accusations of EPO use against some of his rivals. "Until the authorities introduce blood testing," Brown said, "there's nothing I can do."

Dave Moorcroft, who heads the governing body for British athletics, has already had talks about the possibility of introducing blood testing in British athletics - initially, at least, in a limited form.

"If EPO is a problem, it is clearly one we need to address," he said. "It is a hugely complicated issue. But we must explore the possibility of introducing random and voluntary blood tests - even if it is only initially in the form of research."

Research work has been conducted on blood testing during the past four years at London's St Thomas's Hospital and laboratories in Norway, Canada, France and the United States. Some of the research labs have published papers which suggest that just a few drops of blood - taken from a pin prick to the finger or ear lobe - is enough for an effective test for HGH and EPO.

Without international sanction, no British sports body could unilaterally introduce blood tests on visiting overseas competitors. Indeed, the organiser of one of the country's largest sports events said: "If I introduced blood testing as a condition of entering my event, I'd end up with nobody in the field."

However, blood testing on British competitors within Britain could give a lead. Certainly it is on the agenda of the British Cycling Federation, as it begins an overall review of drug testing under its jurisdiction.

Brian Cookson, the BCF president, said last night: "We want to be at the leading edge of these matters." Saying he had been "appalled and dismayed" by the events surrounding this year's Tour de France, Cookson said he intends to call for tougher doping control measures - including blood tests - at a conference to be staged by the international cycling body, the UCI, in the Netherlands next month.

"This country is probably not the nub of the problem as far as EPO use is concerned," Cookson said, suggesting that while some British cyclists may have used drugs, the high cost of EPO put it out of the reach of anyone not part of one of the top continental professional teams.

"But we would consider anything that would help provided we had the support and backing of the UK Sports Council and it is a scientifically sustainable technique," Cookson said.

"I'm keen to see blood samples introduced, so that we can test for a range of drugs, not just EPO and growth hormones, because with blood tests you get better, more accurate results than is possible with urine analysis, and you are able to detect the use of masking agents, which many people suspect are in use by steroid users."