Independent monitors to oversea Olympic drug testing

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The Independent Online

Independent observers will monitor all levels of drug testing during the Sydney Olympics in a move to allay athletes' fears of coverups and faulty procedures, the IOC has announced.

A top International Olympic Committee executive, meanwhile, said there is a "50-50" chance that a blood test for the banned hormone EPO will be introduced at the Sydney Games.

If Australian scientists come up with a reliable test, the IOC will fast-track the process to ensure it is validated in time for the games, said Jacques Rogge, vice chairman of the IOC's medical commission.

Rogge said independent observers will be appointed by the new World Anti-Doping Agency to watch over the entire drug testing system during the Sept. 15-Oct. 1 games.

The observers will be present at all stages, including the collection and analysis of urine samples and disciplinary hearings for athletes who test positive.

The need for greater openness, oversight and accountability in Olympic drug testing has been a major demand of athletes' groups. Critics have accused the IOC of hiding positive tests at past Olympics.

"Athletes want controls to be fair," Rogge said. "They feel that doping controls are generally not correct. They fear coverups. There is a general suspicion among athletes and part of public opinion.

"While these concerns are unjustified, the best way to alleviate the suspicion is to have an independent observer who follows the whole sequence of doping control."

IOC vice president Dick Pound, chairman of the anti-doping agency, added: "Unless the athletes buy into the doping control system, the system won't work."

It was uncertain how many observers will be needed. With more than 2,000 drug tests to be carried out during the Sydney Games, Rogge said the observers will be selective in their monitoring.

"We don't need the U.N. army with blue helmets," he said. "You don't need a big brother mentality of observers behind the shoulder for every doping control."

Rogge, meanwhile, gave one of the IOC's most upbeat assessments of the possibility of having a test for EPO, or erythropoietin, in Sydney.

"I'd put the odds at 50-50," he said.

EPO, which enhances endurance by boosting the production of oxygen-rich red blood cells in the body, was at the centre of the Tour de France doping scandal two years ago and is believed widely used in several sports.

EPO can not be detected by standard urine tests.

Rogge said the IOC has finalised the legal rules which would allow blood sampling to be carried out in Sydney if a test is ready.

Researchers at the Australian Institute of Sport have told the IOC they can produce a reliable EPO test by early July.

"I dearly hope this will be true," Rogge said. "However, we can't accept a test that has not been scientifically validated."

The IOC will announce shortly the procedures for scientific validation, including publication in a highly-respected journal, independent peer review and approval by legal experts.

"It's not a lack of good will," Rogge said. "It's a race against time. It's not impossible, but there could be red lights at different levels."

Rogge said he remained cautious because of the experience of the 1996 Atlanta Games, where seven athletes tested positive for the stimulant bromantan.

The results were thrown out by the Court of Arbitration for Sport because the bromantan test was finalized just three weeks before the games and had not been scientifically approved.

"Four months later, the test was accepted," Rogge said. "For me, it was a pain in the heart that we had to leave those seven athletes without punishment."

Rogge said the test for EPO will not be 100 percent foolproof because it detects changes in blood levels and does not prove the presence of artificial EPO.

"The tests can only be 98 percent or 99 percent certain," he said. "We need to know if a judge will accept that. You can never prove that artificial EPO was in your blood. We can not rule out the absolute possibility of a false positive result."

On another issue, Rogge criticized Major League baseball for failing to prohibit the use of androstenedione, the controversial substance used by St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire in 1998 when he hit a record 70 home runs.

Andro is included on the IOC's list of banned substances as a steroid, but Major League Baseball says more study is needed to determine whether it affects athletic performance.

"I can't understand why andro is still freely available over the counter in the U.S.," Rogge said. "It is forbidden in the rest of the world. It is potentially damaging to your health. We know the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is studying this. We hope it doesn't take too long. We hope andro is made available only by prescription and put on the banned list."

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