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IOC approves blood tests for Sydney

The International Olympic Committee has given its final approval Monday to the use of blood tests for the banned performance-enhancing drug EPO at the Sydney Games.

The International Olympic Committee has given its final approval Monday to the use of blood tests for the banned performance-enhancing drug EPO at the Sydney Games.

Some 400 EPO tests likely will be carried out between Sept. 2, the day the athletes' village opens, and the closing of the games Oct. 1, said Prince Alexandre de Merode, the head of the IOC medical commission. The total will be between 300 and 700, depending on laboratory capacity.

"I think it will be a very good impact on the many athletes who do not cheat," said Kevan Gosper, an IOC vice president from Australia. "For those who do cheat, I hope it scares the heck out of them."

De Merode said a total of 3,800 drug tests can be expected before and during the Sydney Olympics. Urine samples taken as part of the EPO testing procedure will also be used to test for substances such as anabolic steroids.

The IOC's ruling executive board backed a recommendation from IOC legal experts that the tests should be allowed to go ahead. The IOC juridical commission, meeting Sunday, found no legal impediments to conducting them.

The combined urine and blood test for EPO, or erythropoietin, was backed earlier this month by the IOC medical commission and outside scientific experts. But final authorization was required by the juridical commission and executive board.

"It's been 14 or 15 years that it's taken to come up with this valid test," de Merode said.

He stressed that athletes who refuse to take the tests will not be allowed to compete.

"If they don't want to accept the rules, there is no obligation on them to take part," he said.

EPO, the drug at the heart of the Tour de France doping scandal in 1998, is believed to be widely used by athletes in endurance sports and events such as long-distance running, swimming and cycling.

De Merode said that no particular sport would be singled out for testing at Sydney and athletes will be chosen at random.

"I'm against the idea of trying to introduce this concept of high-risk sports," he said. "I think it's unjustifiable."

The IOC is hoping that the tests in Sydney will encourage sporting federations to use the procedure in future.

"Of course we're recommending it," de Merode said. "It's probable that the Olympic Games will be a particularly favorable place for this type of experiment."

Injected in synthetic form, EPO enhances stamina by increasing the number of red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the muscles. Experts say it can improve performance by up to 15 percent.

Until now, there has been no test for detecting EPO use. French researchers developed a urine test which can provide direct proof of EPO use, while Australian scientists devised a blood test which offers indirect evidence.

Australian sports minister Jackie Kelly welcomed the IOC decision as "a breakthrough in the fight against drugs in sport."

"It puts blood testing squarely on the anti-doping landscape," Kelly said in a statement. "That is a tremendous legacy in itself."

In Sydney, an athlete will be considered guilty of EPO use only if both urine and blood tests are positive.

Olympic officials said they were confident of their reliability, and de Merode insisted a high number of positive tests at Sydney would "certainly not" be an embarrassment.

He conceded that "today, there are still some minor faults" with the French urine test but said the Australian-developed blood test compensates for any shortcomings.

The decision on EPO gave Olympic officials hope they can crack down on other drugs that still defy detection.

"I am sure that, (for) the human growth hormone, in the next months we will be able to find a solution," said IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch.