Drugs In Sport: Independent Survey - Athletes in fear of the EPO era

Doping experts berate lack of funding to find reliable testing method f or new generation of performance-enhancers

Mike Rowbottom
Friday 11 December 1998 01:02 GMT

A SIGNIFICANT number of elite British athletes are concerned that there is widespread use within their sport of erythropoietin, or EPO, the banned blood booster which was at the heart of the controversy which all but wrecked this year's Tour de France cycling race.

Of those track and field athletes who took part in The Independent's drug survey, 27 per cent said they felt fellow competitors were illegally improving their endurance by taking the synthetic hormone which raises the red blood-cell count and enables more oxygen to circulate around the body.

Meanwhile Dr David Cowan, one of Britain's leading doping analysts, has criticised the lack of funding towards finding a reliable test for EPO.

"Research in this area seems to have petered out," Dr Cowan, who heads the Drug Control Centre in Chelsea, said. "I would like to see EPO cracked. Around $2m (pounds 1.2m) would probably see the problem rapidly solved. Certainly $1m a year over the next five years would solve it - or $5m over a shorter time."

Dr Cowan believes the cost would be relatively small considering the resources available to the pharmaceutical industry, the International Olympic Committee and even the world governing body for athletics, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which is currently offering a $1m jackpot to any athletes remaining unbeaten in its Golden League series.

"The Sports Council has had no money for research in the last five years," Cowan said. "For the pharmaceutical industry, what we would need to crack EPO is a relatively small amount of money.

"Athletes see the doping control programme as very uneven - they don't think we are doing enough. We just have to keep pushing on and seeing what we can do to improve the situation."

Craig Reedie, the chairman of the British Olympic Association and co- representative for Britain, along with Princess Anne, in the IOC, fully supports Cowan's view. "It's a relatively tiny amount of money," he said. "Research is where more money should be spent now."

There is no reliable or legally acceptable method yet devised to determine abuse in this area, because it is impossible to detect which oxygen-carrying red blood cells are natural and which have been stimulated by injecting the hormone which stimulates their production.

Research in Sweden has shown that EPO can improve performance by up to 15 per cent, but it has deadly side-effects if used to excess. One rider in this year's Tour talked of how injecting the substance could turn blood "to jam". The practice has been linked with numerous deaths through strokes or heart attacks among cyclists from Holland and Belgium in recent years.

The fears among athletes revealed by The Independent's survey tie in with the views expressed earlier this year by Jon Brown, Britain's leading 10,000 metres runner. Brown, who set a new British record for the event this season, reiterated his concerns about the misuse of EPO in Budapest after missing out on a European medal by one place.

"Even two years ago I would say it was virtually non-existent in distance running, but I think now you have got some main players operating on the stuff," he said. "A lot of weird stuff has gone on over the past 18 months."

Brown's suspicions rested with European, rather than African athletes, especially those who had close ties with doctors and masseurs involved in cycling. "Once you go down that road - the same as cycling - sport is not real sport. In cycling, it is team policy and if you do not do it, you have not got a chance. I would not like to see distance running go that way. Blood testing is a way forward but I do not see that happening for another five years."

The game of trying to gain an extra edge in competition is a timeless one. In the 3rd Century BC, according to the writer, Galen, ancient Olympic competitors tried to enhance their performance by taking "the rare hoofs of an Abyssinian ass, ground up, boiled in oil and flavoured with rose- hips and petals."

In recent years, hooves have been replaced by anabolic steroids and stimulants. But since Ben Johnson's notorious fall from hero to zero after his positive steroid test at the 1988 Olympics, the eternal chase between testers and cheaters has moved onto new ground.

"What was once a game of pharmacology has turned into a game of endocrinology," Dr Robert Voy, the former chief medical officer of the United States Olympic Committee, says. "Steroids and stimulants have given way as athletes have turned towards hormonal manipulation as the in-vogue doping technology."

The use of human growth hormone - HgH - is the other major area of concern to those in charge of combating doping abuse worldwide. But for this substance - which also has potentially fatal side effects - a reliable test is clearly visible on the horizon.

A $2m research programme, jointly funded by the IOC and the European Community, has arrived at a method of testing for abuse of HgH after collecting blood samples from more than 700 elite athletes since the start of 1995, the last of which were taken from competitors at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur.

"The results are every bit as good as we hoped they would be," Peter Sonksen, the project head and professor of endocrinology at St Thomas's Hospital, said. "We will present our final research to the IOC at the end of the year, and although time is short, it is our intention to have things in place by the time of the 2000 Olympics."

Sonksen, who will update the IOC medical commission on his work at their meeting in Lausanne this week, does not foresee any serious difficulty in asking competitors to give blood samples. "I don't see there is any major problem with implementing blood testing," he said, pointing out that a legal precedent has already been set by the blood testing undertaken at the Winter Olympics of 1994. Brown, it seems, will have one of his wishes earlier than he expects.

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