Blood, sweat and fears ahead for Sydney

For the last decade it has seemed as though the offenders have been taking the urine out of the testers, rather than the other way around
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The Independent Online

28 May 2000

28 May 2000

There is a corny, slightly tasteless joke, about amiddle-aged man who is afflicted by insomnia and dyslexia and who also happens to be an agnostic. So he lies awake in bed at night wondering if there is a Dog or not. I'm a middle-aged paranoid insomniac myself, and I lie awake listening to the BBC World Service in the small hours, not just because it gives an invaluable alternative view on the world, but also because it helps me stay awake, easing my fears about dying in my sleep. Last Tuesday night, a short programme entitled Science View had me alive and kicking.

It featured an overview of the battle against drug abuse in sport in the run-up to the Sydney Olympics, and two items were startling. The first was the news that an eminent Australian sports scientist had been arrested on his return from America carrying a suitcase full of pharmaceutical "nasties". Because the case is recent, further comment is restricted, but the incident threw an additional perspective on to the Australian Sports Drugs Agency, or Asda, and their preparations to catch athletes who've been doing the equivalent of "the supermarket sweep" through their chemists.

For a representative of Asda on the programme admitted that the agency is involved in a race against time to prepare a validated test into what is widely believed will be the most abused substance at the Games, the hormone erythopoietin, otherwise known as EPO. In its natural state erythopoietin issecreted by the kidneys in response to a shortage of oxygen in the blood. It stimulates bone marrow to produce a greater supply of red blood cells that in turn increase the volume of oxygen in the body. The hormone can be synthetically produced for the benefit ofpeople suffering from anaemia,or those undergoing dialysis, and injected intravenously.

Further research, beyond lying in bed listening to the radio, has suggested to me that, given the current state of sporting ethics, the opportunist coaches and fixers have been quick to seize upon EPO for the benefits it relays to athletes in endurance events. It has for certain become the drug of choice on the largely discredited Tour de France over the past few years. For the drug testers, EPO offers a dual challenge. In the first instance, it occurs naturally in the body, giving the abuser an instant defence against charges. Secondly, EPO, or rather its levels in the body to be precise, can be determined only by a blood test, an examination which is, as yet, not permitted to the Olympic authorities.

The International Cyclist Union has been able to press ahead with blood tests, but only in as much as it allows them to find those competitors with abnormally high readings of haematocrit, the proportion of blood consisting of red cells. Without a validated test, they cannot exclude cyclists on the grounds of taking a performance-enhancing substance. However, if the level is higher than 50 per cent, consistent with abuse but not absolute evidence of it, the cyclists can be excluded from competition because of the danger to their health.

For EPO, in excess, has the capacity to thicken the blood, making the heart strain harder to pump it around the body. And if the heart cannot manage it, it simply stops. A number of deaths on assorted cycling tours over the past five years have been ascribed to unexpected heart failure, almost certainly brought on by massive doses of EPO. The prospect of using a performance enhancer for which they cannot be tested probably seems like a dream scenario to those athletes who are convinced that EPO can give them a distinct edge.

The Australian Institute of Sport is due to finalise its EPO testing programme on 9 June, along with several other countries who have also joined in the pursuit of an accurate test. If the research results pinpoint a way forward, the International Olympic Committee will almost certainly rush to establish protocols for bloodtesting at the Sydney Games.

There may not be enough time, however, and now, when any accused athlete instantly responds with threats of litigation, a definitive EPO test and the IOC regulations to employ it need to be watertight. Athletes bent on performance enhancement are always more likely to win a race than scientists and administrators. Indeed for the last decade it has seemed as though the offenders have been taking the urine out of the testers, rather than the other way round. The possibility of a workable test may yet deter the majority of abusers. Equally, there is likely to be a small minority of competitors, so desperate to achieve Olympic Gold, that they could well be met at the finishing line not by blonde girls with fizzy drinks and bouquets of flowers, but by the Grim Reaper and his scythe. If I didn't suffer from them already, this thought would be enough to give me sleepless nights...

 

Peter Corrigan, the regular voice in this slot, is as fervently Welsh as could be expected for a man with an Irish surname. But I wonder how much the loyalty of both his and his fellow countrymen was tested by the Welsh football team in their friendly against Brazil at the Millennium Stadium on Tuesday. The new national manager Mark Hughes, though un-signed of contract, took the brazen decisions to reduce the width of the pitch and to "increase" the height of the grass, in an attempt to stifle fluency.

Maybe Hughes knew well in advance that the "Ghost of Friendlies Past" had claimed Ryan Giggs, denying him the chance to perform in one of the few games for which he'd made himself available. Had Giggs been fit, I cannot imagine that Hughes would have resorted to reducing the space or slowing the pace for his most gifted player. So perhaps his apparent act of gamesmanship was provoked by this loss rather than the caution that national football managers so quickly acquire. Indeed, if we think even more charitably, Hughes was plainly misled by his spies about Brazilian football's capabilities.

Even the most casual observers of Brazilian football would know that their players grow up playing on the thick sand of the Copacabana, the rough terrain of the favelas, or even the central reservation of a dual carriageway. Playing on grass, however long and however reduced in acreage, is still a joy to them, as their brief period of a second-half ascendancy demonstrated. Instead of being fearful, Hughes should have concentrated on Brazil's obvious weakness - the boys Rivaldo, Ze Roberto, Denilson, Silvinho are all one-footers. Mind you, there's one-footers and one-footers.

 

It's surprising that any professional sports-person is still agreeing to appear in lavish adverts for Nike, despite the vast sums of money involved. The company's track record with shooting down albatross for Sergei Bubka, Patrick Kluivert, Ronaldo, Arsenal and Michael Johnson is now so well established that it has become known as "The Curse of Nike".

The latest campaign, a cybernaut-ish contest to reclaim a magic football, features many for whom it has already struck. Andy Cole is limping towards exclusion from Euro 2000, while Edgar Davids suffered the trauma of a last-match championship loss with Juventus. Luis Figo of Barcelona lost out on both the Champions' League and Spanish League, while the Man in the Van is none other than Luis Van Gaal, the Barca coach who quit last Saturday. "Just Don't Do It" may be the wiser alternative to would-be advertisers.

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