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  Monday, 31 July, 2000, 16:10 GMT 17:10 UK
Boosting the body illegally
Virenque
French former Festina rider Richard Virenque (right)
How EPO use has hit the headlines - click on links in the text for original stories.

EPO, or erythroprotein, is used to boost the body's oxygen-transmitting capability.

When taken it makes muscles work more effectively and is particularly useful for endurance athletes.

Many suspect it is used in a number of different sports, but it is cycling which has suffered most of the bad publicity surrounding the substance.

The 1998 Tour de France was almost destroyed because of an EPO scandal, and ever since the sport has been battling to restore a battered image.

Tour 1998: Cycling's nightmare

Although the the Union Cycliste International (UCI) introduced a blood test designed to restrict EPO use in January 1997, it was in July 1998 that the amount of abuse was revealed to the world.

After EPO was discovered in a team car, members of the top Festina team were thrown off the Tour de France.

Days later, the riders concerned were detained in a French jail.

Months after the race, top French rider Richard Virenque continued to protest his innocence, but in the autumn a judge ruled that he did take drugs.

Enemy within

As the following year's Tour began, the sport was nervous about its future.

The Festina affair will finally come to trial in France in the autumn of 2000.

At the same time, an Italian court will decide the fate of Marco Pantani.

Marco Pantani
Pantani protests his innocence
The man who won the drug-tainted Tour of 1998 failed a blood test himself at the 1999 Giro d'Italia.

Subsequent investigations and tests of old samples have convinced the Italian authorities that the country's most popular cyclist has a case to answer.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this case, there is no question that EPO remains cycling's enemy within just as it was back in 1999.

Throughout this period work has been going on to develop a test for EPO, which occurs naturally and so has not been able to detect with a simple urine test.

Early efforts to develop a test saw a cancer agent used in trials.

Urine test

This year scientists announced that they had the answer - a first urine test for the substance.

But the UCI decided not to implement it before the Tour of 2000 leaving the decision to the Olympic authorities later in the year.

Cyclists were warned that urine samples would be frozen and tested as and when the new method was approved.

Yet on the eve of the race three riders still produced red blood cell counts that implied some EPO use , even if could not be proved.

The race itself passed without incident, the first time in years that a Tour had not been affected by a positive test or a police raid.

A month later the International Olympic Committee met to decide on whether to implement the test in time for the Sydney games.

Links to more Drugs in Sport stories are at the foot of the page.


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