Drugs in sport: IOC sees no hope of early EPO test

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HOPES THAT Australian scientists would be able to come up with a reliable test for erythropoietin (EPO) in time for next year's Sydney Olympics have been played down by the International Olympic Committee.

The Australian Institute of Sports, which is in charge of the country's elite training programmes, said last year it had developed a test to detect artificially administered EPO. It is feeding EPO to 20 high-class athletes to try out the test, which is based on the premise that artificial EPO measurably alters the profile of red blood cells. AIS researchers said last week that initial results showed "incredible increases" in the athletes' performances.

But yesterday Jacques Rogge, a Belgian doctor who is chairman of the IOC's Co-ordination Commission, said he preferred to remain "realistic" about a watertight test for EPO and human growth hormones. "If the test is ready at the eve of the opening ceremony, we will implement it with great pleasure the following day," he told a Sydney news conference. "However as a physician and as the vice chairman of the IOC medical commission, unfortunately I must be very realistic in the assessment.

"EPO research is a very difficult scientific issue, like human growth hormone. We have interesting avenues but between something that might be a test and something that is acceptable in court is a huge difference."

EPO helps to boost an athlete's red blood cell count, enabling higher levels of oxygen to be retained, and is therefore most useful to athletes in endurance sports. However, it is also one of the most dangerous drugs because it can make the blood thick and gluey and leave an athlete open to cardiac arrest.