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Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 18:14 GMT 19:14 UK
Test 'close' for athlete drug cheats
Starting blocks
EPO improves athletes' performance, but is illegal
A blood test to detect the illicit sports drug erythropoietin (EPO) could be scientifically proven in time for the Sydney Olympics, researchers claim.

Results of a study published on Wednesday appear to confirm that the new test works.

A trial of 27 Australian athletes who will not be competing in Sydney reliably distinguished between those who had been given EPO by researchers and those who had not.

The test also picked up more than two-thirds of the athletes who had been given EPO three weeks before.

The drug is used to boost performance in endurance events such as running and cycling and the race is now on to validate it before the games in September.

Testing for EPO directly is difficult because the synthetic version is almost indistinguishable from its natural form - a version of the hormone was originally created to treat severe anaemia.

And while EPO's effect is long-lasting, the hormone itself rapidly disappears from the body.

It is used illegally because it can boost athletes performance by 10% or more, by increasing the body's production of red blood cells.

But too many red blood cells can cause heart failure and since EPO arrived on the sports scene in the 1980s, 26 cyclists and several other athletes have died unexpectedly.

The International Cycling Union does not allow male cyclists to race if the proportion of red cells in their blood is more than 50%. The threshold for women is 47%.

Non-athletes usually have a level of around 45%.

Drug use

But Robin Parisotto, of the Australian Institute of Sport, who led the research, said the limits had done little to affect drug use.

"All it's done is give everyone a target to aim for," he said.

The new test measures five different substances in the blood, including two markers for newly manufactured red blood cells, reports New Scientist magazine.

There was one false positive result in 189 tests.

Jim Stray-Gundersen, of the Norwegian University of Sport and Physical Education in Oslo, said: "It is a great test. I was impressed with the data."

He is now helping Parisotto replicate the test in Norwegian and Chinese athletes and levels for the five substances will be standardised against findings from 1,200 athletes from 12 countries.

The International Olympic Committee, which has the final say on whether the test will be used in Sydney, will be presented with the results on 1 August.

But Nikki Vance of the Sydney Organising Committee for the Olympic Games said preparations were being made to use the test.

She said: "We are doing everything we can to be ready. We know exactly how we would do it, with the equipment, with the people."

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