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Test for Performance Drug Wins Olympic Panel's Nod

Sports: Officials hope to screen for substance known as EPO in Sydney. The move underscores the Games' battle against doping.

August 02, 2000|ALAN ABRAHAMSON and DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Only weeks before the Sydney Games, Olympic officials have given preliminary approval for a test that they hope will detect one of the most rampant, and potent, drugs in sports.

The International Olympic Committee's medical panel, meeting Tuesday in Lausanne, Switzerland, voted unanimously to recommend a combined blood and urine procedure that checks for erythropoietin, or EPO, a performance-enhancing substance.

The recommendation is expected to be adopted later this month, just in time for the Games. Some anti-drug crusaders hope that it is a sign that the Olympic movement--which by most accounts has lagged badly in the war on doping--is finally getting tough on drugs.

"Who thought we'd be in this position?" asked Rob Housman, an advisor to U.S. anti-drug czar Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey. "We are now at a stage where, for the clean athletes, they can have far greater confidence."

The effect could be felt most in sports such as swimming and cycling, where racers compete in grueling events.

"Hopefully this will scare the cheaters into being normal," said Neil Walker, a top U.S. swimmer. "Either that or they'll test positive and get ousted from the Games."

Abuse of EPO has gone virtually unchecked since the drug was developed in the late 1980s. EPO, which stimulates the creation of red blood cells, was meant to help people with blood disorders.

Athletes quickly surmised that extra cells carried extra oxygen, boosting endurance in training and competition. Researchers say EPO can improve performance by as much as 15%.

Moreover, the substance is modeled after a natural hormone and is tricky to detect. Its use as a performance enhancer did not become widely known to the public until vials of the drug were found among the belongings of a cycling team competing in the 1998 Tour de France.

So officials and researchers are left to guess at how many athletes use EPO and other performance-enhancing drugs. Estimates range from 10% to 99%.

Now comes the new test, which is a combination of two procedures.

The first, developed by French researchers, seeks to differentiate between natural and artificial EPO in urine. The second, the result of an Australian study, looks for changes in blood composition.

The IOC helped fund both research projects.

Having gained approval from the 15-member medical panel, the test will go before the IOC's legal panel and executive board later this month. Senior IOC officials expect full approval.

"It's a three-level rocket," said Dr. Patrick Schamasch, the IOC's medical director. "In a rocket where the first level works well, it's very unlikely the second and third levels don't go well. . . . I'm quite optimistic."

The IOC had already planned to conduct 2,000 conventional doping tests on the 10,500 athletes in Sydney. It now hopes to add at least 300--perhaps as many as 700--EPO tests beginning Sept. 2, when the Olympic village opens in the Australian city, and continuing through the Summer Games that run from Sept. 15 to Oct. 1.

But officials were vague about how the new test would be administered or how far back it can check for EPO use. This lack of detail gave longtime IOC critics reason for pause.

"The question is, how good is this test?" asked University of Texas professor John Hoberman, an expert on doping issues and the Olympics. "Is there going to be a transparent and accountable public discussion of how good this test is?

"It's hard to tell which political winds have been swirling around the whole process," he added.

In recent months, the test for another banned substance--a steroid called nandrolone--has come under fire as a number of high-profile athletes have appealed positive results.

Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey had her two-year ban lifted last month, and track officials have agreed to research whether food supplements and herbal preparations can trigger a false positive test result.

In this climate, observers feared that the IOC would be reluctant to adopt a new test of any kind so close to the Games. Olympic officials had sounded cautious, saying before this week's meeting of the medical panel that chances for approval were 50-50.

At the same time, however, the Olympic movement has felt political pressure--most notably from the French and Australian governments--to combat drug use. In addition to considering the EPO tests, the IOC helped create the World Anti-Doping Agency, an independent group that will coordinate research and testing.

"In the past, I've always thought the IOC was dismissive of the problem," said Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic marathon champion and chairman of the newly formed U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. "This time, I think they are listening. This is a chance for them to convince the cynics that they see doping as something more than a public relations problem."

Not all cynics will be easily convinced.

In more than 30 years of testing, the IOC has caught fewer than 60 athletes. Officials acknowledge that they lost or discarded results at previous Games--including the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

And the IOC still lacks the capability to check for powerful substances such as human growth hormone.

Even those who laud Tuesday's decision insist that the Olympic movement must push for more changes, including a controversial proposal to freeze blood samples so that they can be tested at a later date, when more sophisticated procedures are available.

"Even as we speak, someone out there, somewhere in the world, is coming up with a new and even more insidious way of [cheating]," said Housman, the U.S. anti-drug czar's advisor. "We have to be constantly on guard, constantly moving science forward."

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