The first in-competition positive finding of EPO, the illegal blood booster, in a track and field athlete has left Russia's world indoor 3,000 metres champion, Olga Yegorova, facing a two-year ban.
The 29-year-old economist gave a sample at this month's Paris Golden League meeting which showed up traces of the banned performance-enhancing substance erythropoietin, which increases the levels of oxygen-carrying red blood cells in the body. The test came after the race in which she set the world best this year, 8min 23.75sec.
She faces suspension if her B sample also shows up positive, but a senior Russian official said that she still intends to compete at the World Championships, which start in Edmonton a week today.
"She will go to Edmonton to plead her case with the International Amateur Athletic Federation," said Russia's chief coach, Valery Kulichenko. "Any person has a right to demand a hearing in order to prove their innocence."
Yegorova, who won her indoor world gold in Lisbon four months ago, has been in the vanguard of a group of Russian women athletes who have dominated middle distance running this season. Eight days before her Paris run, she achieved a startling victory in the Rome Golden League 3,000m, leading home a Russian one-two-three which also included Yelena Zadorozhnaya and Tatyana Tomashova in a race where the Olympic champion, Gabriela Szabo, finished fourth.
Zadorozhnaya then ran away from Britain's Paula Radcliffe to earn an unexpected win in the European Cup 5,000m in Bremen, recording a national record of 14min 40.47sec, which tops this year's world lists.
The dramatic upsurge of Russia's middle distance women this year has caused some raising of eyebrows, and Yegorova's positive will do nothing to diminish doubts over the legitimacy of their achievements.
Testing for EPO, which has been in place for several years in cycling events such as the Tour de France, was instituted by the International Olympic Committee before last year's Sydney Games. A combination of techniques was used, incorporating blood analysis, which shows up levels of red blood cells, and testing of urine samples.
Two leading Chinese women athletes – the former 5,000m world record holder Dong Yanmei, and 1998 world junior 1500m champion Lan Lixin – were dropped from the Olympics after blood tests by the Chinese authorities suggested they might have taken EPO. They were among 27 competitors dropped from China's team of 311 after failing blood tests.
Since then, however, their controversial coach, Ma Junren, has been given a leading role in preparing athletes for the forthcoming runners, and Dong Yanmei and Lan Lixin have been returned to the squad.
The Chinese attitude has been questioned by Britain's world cross country champion, Paula Radcliffe, who points out that they might have been expected to be especially careful about their image following the award of the 2008 Games to Beijing. "If there are good performances in Edmonton by Chinese athletes there is going to be scepticism," she says.
Earlier this month, the IAAF said it will be testing all Edmonton medallists for EPO and taking random samples elsewhere in the competition. EPO testing will form 15-20 per cent of the doping prevention activity, focusing on blood samples first and then using urine samples for any confirmation.
The announcement made by the Paris meeting organisers was heartily endorsed by Bernard Amselem, chairman of the French athletics federation. "I'm really happy that this happened during a meeting in France," he said. "It proves the French athletics federation is eager to fight against doping. I hope other meeting organisers throughout Europe will follow our example."
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