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Athletes could be tested for EPO in Sydney

Athletes could be tested for EPO during the Sydney Games even if the IOC doesn't approve a test for the banned endurance-boosting drug this week, the IOC medical director said today.

Athletes could be tested for EPO during the Sydney Games even if the IOC doesn't approve a test for the banned endurance-boosting drug this week, the IOC medical director said today.

Patrick Schamasch said there was no need to give athletes warning about such a test. Even if a test is approved just before, during or near the end of the September 15-October 1 Sydney Games, the IOC would be entitled to use it, he said.

"EPO is a prohibited substance so we would be allowed to test the athletes without telling everyone we have a test," Schamasch said. "Even during the games, we will be able to conduct the test if we are sure. Until the last minute, we will be able to push a test if we are sure we won't have a false positive."

Schmasch was speaking at the start of a two-day meeting of a 15-member panel composed of the IOC medical commission and outside experts.

The meeting is being held behind closed doors, and panel members declinded to speak to reporters after the session.

The panel will announce on Tuesday whether one or both of two proposed EPO tests are reliable enough for use in Sydney. Schmasch put the chances at "50-50."

Even without an agreement this week, "We still have 43 days before the games, and 43 days for science is huge," Schamasch said.

EPO, or erythropoietin, boosts the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells. It is believed to be heavily used in endurance events such as cycling and distance running, where experts say it can improve performance by 10-15 percent.

EPO was at the heart of the doping scandal which marred the 1998 Tour de France bicycle race. Ironically, a Tour de France exhibit is featured at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne where the IOC experts are meeting this week.

Heavy use of EPO can also lead to blood clots and other complications. The drug has been blamed for the deaths of numerous professional cyclists over the past 20 years.

Until now, a reliable test for EPO has eluded researchers.

Schamasch denied that the IOC was under pressure to approve an EPO test, although he conceded it would like to have one in place before the Sydney Games open Sept. 15.

"We are really eager to have something ready in time," he said. "But our decision will be based on the scientific data.

"These tests will be another stone to the building of the fight against doping. I prefer to have a solid stone rather than a frail one. If you have a frail stone, all the building will fall down."

Two tests are being considered by the IOC committee - an Australian-developed blood test and a French-developed urine test. The researchers behind each of the tests presented the details to the 15-member panel Monday.

The Australian method does not actually detect the EPO, but it finds changes in the blood which are caused by use of the drug.

The French system detects EPO directly in the urine and can tell the difference between artificial use and EPO occurring naturally.

Both sets of researchers face the challenge of proving that their tests take into account other factors that might affect the result, such as sex, ethnic origin or training at altitude.

"We want to be sure that we don't have any false positives," Schamasch said. "We don't want to punish an innocent athlete."

If one or both of the tests are approved at this meeting, they will then be considered by the IOC's legal experts. Final approval would come at the IOC executive board meeting in Lausanne Aug. 28-29.

Schamasch admitted that new drugs were being created all the time and that research would have to continue, but denied the IOC was fighting a losing battle against cheats.

"We have been working on this since 1967," he said. "In 1967 we detected 3-4 percent of banned substances and now we detect 95 percent."