Race to develop a reliable EPO drug test for Sydney

The International Olympic Committee's medical chief, Patrick Schamasch, has warned that there is only a 50-50 chance of a reliable test before September's Olympic Games for the banned drug erythropoietin. EPO, which boosts the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity.

The International Olympic Committee's medical chief, Patrick Schamasch, has warned that there is only a 50-50 chance of a reliable test before September's Olympic Games for the banned drug erythropoietin. EPO, which boosts the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity.

The IOC's medical commission began a two-day meeting yesterday to examine tests developed in Australia and France, the former based on blood samples, the latter on urine samples. The drug, originally developed for kidney diseases, has become a major problem in endurance sports like cycling, long-distance running and cross-country skiing.

"We want to be sure that we don't have any false positives," Schamasch said yesterday. "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 on 28-29 August.

Schamasch said even if the tests are not approved at this week's meeting, athletes could be tested for EPO during the Games and that there was no need to give athletes warning of such an eventuality. "Even if a test is approved just before, during or near the end of the 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," he continued. "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."

Even if no agreement is reached this week, however, Schamasch is still optimistic. "We still have 43 days before the games, and 43 days for science is huge," he said.

Schamasch admitted that new drugs were being created all the time and that research would have to continue, but denied that 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 per cent of banned substances and now we detect 95 per cent."

Despite police warnings of a flooded market, Australian Olympic Committee officials have rejected speculation that the theft of 1,000 vials of EPO from the Alice Springs hospital in central Australia was connected with the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

The AOC media director, Mike Tancred, said it was impossible to link the robbery with a growing demand for the banned substance by athletes preparing for the Olympics.

"We don't have all the details from the police, but it would be drawing a long bow to say this crime was Olympic-related," Tancred said.

A spokesperson for the Australian Sports Drug Agency, which will conduct doping tests before and during the Sydney Games, said, however, that it was concerned about having a large quantity of stolen drugs flooding the illicit market.

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