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Friday, 20 April, 2001, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Police swoop on pigeon fanciers
pigeon
Belgian police suspect fowl play
Belgian police have swooped on the homes of pigeon fanciers, seizing large quantities of suspected performance-enhancing drugs.

Belgium is regarded as the home of pigeon racing, with 60,000 pigeon fanciers in a nation of 10 million.

Police raided 80 homes of breeders and feed and medicine suppliers throughout Belgium.

Prosecutor Louis Denecker said the raid followed tests that uncovered traces of what could be banned chemicals in racing birds.

Competition is fierce in the sport, despite its declining popularity.

Nurturing

Breeders have to nurture and train the birds constantly, and the most fancied pigeons can fetch more than $25,000. Similar sums can be won at the classic races.

Pigeon racing
Sport began in Belgium - first long-distance race held in 1818
Pigeons trained by repetition to return to home lofts
Some pigeons attain average speeds of more than 145 km/h (90 miles per hour)
Pigeons can fly thousands of kilometres before returning home

In Belgium, breeders face a three-year ban from the sport for doping.

"There is still this nostalgia for the magical potion," said Jean-Louis Jorissen, head of the World Pigeon Center, which breeds and trains racing pigeons sold worldwide.

Mr Jorissen praised the crackdown on distributors who sell hormones and cortisone to boost the birds' racing performance. "We have to get rid of them," the Associated Press news agency quoted him as saying.

Scandals

Belgium has experienced pigeon-racing scandals before.

Last year, 36 of the finest birds were stolen from one of Belgium's best performers and eggs holding the next generation of potential champions were destroyed.

In an earlier case, a champion breeder was suspended after he was found to have tampered with a race clock.

Carrier pigeons were used extensively by both sides on the Western Front during World War I.

There are memorials in Brussels and Lille, northern France, honouring the role of military pigeons during the war.

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