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Five Athens drug cheats to be revealed

Improvement in blood testing allows retesting of samples taken from medal winners in 2004
  • @emilydugan

Five suspected drug cheats from the 2004 Olympics in Athens will be unmasked after London's Games conclude, The Independent on Sunday has learnt. The five all compete in field events, such as the shot put, and are all from Eastern Europe.

Some are medallists and will be stripped of their awards eight years after they won them. The rest will face disciplinary action and have to live with tarnished reputations.

Three-time world champion hammer thrower Ivan Tsikhan of Belarus was not competing last Friday after positive results from his 2004 retest. He took silver in Athens and will now have to return the medal.

Testing at this year's Games has already seen three athletes sent home for doping – most recently, Victoria Pendleton's rival, the Russian track cyclist Victoria Baranova, who failed a pre-Olympics test for testosterone.

Samples are kept for eight years after every Games, to allow testing science a chance to catch up with the latest performance-enhancing drugs and detect cheats. Recent retests of Beijing participants caught five athletes for use of an advanced version of the blood-boosting drug EPO. Rashid Ramzi of Bahrain was retroactively stripped of his gold medal in the 1,500 metres.

A senior source at the International Olympic Committee said the athletes who had tested positive for banned substances after their samples had come back from Athens were all in field disciplines and that their results – and disciplinary decisions – would be announced "shortly after the Games".

The World Anti-Doping Agency had pushed the IOC to retest the old samples because the technology for detecting minute amounts of steroids and other enhancements has improved dramatically in recent years. Around 100 samples were reanalysed at the drug-testing laboratory in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Professor Bengt Saltin, who pioneered anti-doping research and was awarded an Olympic prize for sports science, said he was relieved the drugs cheats from Athens were finally being caught. "With improved technology, now it's possible to detect these things which were not possible eight years ago. It was really bad at Athens and the years up to it because the substances were available and the athletes knew that the detection methods were quite poor. I am pleased this day has come."

According to Professor Saltin, retroactive testing can have a positive impact on the next generation of athletes. "It has a preventive effect", he said. "It will remind present athletes practising in top performance that one day they may be found guilty of doping, even if they are on undetectable drugs at the minute."

The Athens Games were notorious for drug abuse. The testing available at the time exposed a record 26 doping cases, more than double the previous high of 12 in Los Angeles in 1984. Six medallists, including two gold medal winners, were caught in Athens from among 3,600 tests.

Mark Adams, director of communications for the International Olympic Committee, said: "We can confirm that there are five adverse findings from the Athens Games … You'll appreciate this is a confidential process so we can't say more until after the next round of testing."

John Fahey, president of the anti-doping agency, said: "The fact that some samples have been retested from Athens and found positive for substances used at the time but not detected then, shows how powerful it is to retain samples.

"The World Anti-Doping Code makes it possible to open a disciplinary proceeding within eight years from the date a violation occurred. We believe that retrospective testing serves as a strong deterrent."

Ways to get an edge

Blood doping Enhances oxygen transfer to the muscles by artificially boosting an athlete's red blood cell count. Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov was caught after the Tour de France in 2007 and banned for two years.

EPO A more advanced method of blood doping, using a hormone to raise the red blood cells. American cyclist Floyd Landis, briefly the 2006 Tour de France winner, was stripped of his title for this.

Human growth hormone Helps muscles and organs grow so it can boost sporting performance. In February 2010, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats player Terry Newton was caught using it.

Anabolic steroids Help increase muscle size and strength.Users say they reduce body fat and speed recovery from injuries. The Canadian Ben Johnson tested positive three days after winning the 100m gold medal at the 1988 Olympics.

Jenny Soffel