Olympic committee jumps the gun on triathlon blood tests

The Olympic flame burns during the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul, Korea  Credit: AllsportUK/Allsport
Erythropoietin, or EPO, is a naturally occurring chemical that assists in the creation of red blood cells. Its synthetic clone initially used to treat anemic kidney dialysis patients has recently become the banned drug of choice among endurance athletes looking for a competitive edge.

By boosting the number of red blood cells in the body, EPO decreases fatigue and bolsters performance through the increased blood and oxygen flow to the cells.

A number of major newspapers, including the London Times and the Washington Post, reported that on Dec. 9 the International Olympic Committee freed the way to allow the governing bodies of triathlon, cycling and modern pentathlon to conduct pre-event blood tests for EPO for 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.

A Reuters News Service report quoted IOC Medical Director Dr. Peter Samasch's statement that triathlon's governing body, the International Triathlon Union "had asked to carry out tests to check the level of red blood cells in competitors' bodies before races."

The problem is that the ITU won't be conducting these tests, and knew nothing about the IOC announcement at the time.

"This whole situation completely blindsided us," ITU General Secretary Mark Sisson said. "The IOC, or rather an individual in the IOC, pre-empted our decision whether or not to test our athletes. We are as adamant as ever that we will not conduct blood testing as a health screen prior to competition."

The reason the ITU will not submit its athletes to testing is because there is no viable test to check for synthetic EPO. The "health screening" proposed by the IOC measures the hematocrit level (percentage of red blood cells according to blood volume) of an athlete's blood.

This is the same test that cycling's governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale, instituted after the 1998 Tour de France doping scandal.

The health screening only measures the level of red blood cells in the body and not the existence of synthetic EPO. In the UCI's testing procedure, athletes with a hematocrit level above 50 are suspended from competition for safety purposes. Because there is no way of telling if this hematocrit level was attained naturally or with synthetic EPO, no sanctions can be leveled against athletes who test too high.

"What about those poor Colombian athletes who train at altitude and may have a natural (hematocrit) level of, say, 52?" Sisson said. "It is our opinion that health screening allows any athlete to 'dope up' to the legal limit. This runs completely contrary to our stated goals: that we will use every effort to stop drug-taking."

In addition, Sisson says, citing health concerns for EPO or hematocrit testing isn't really the real issue behind the ITU's drug policy, considering the measures they go to ban athletes from using many beneficial medications.

"Here we are denying these athletes the very drugs everyone else in the population uses to get healthy," he said. "But we're out hammering (our athletes) day in, day out causing adrenal insufficiency, thyroid issues, low bone density for us to say we're testing hematocrit for the safety of our athletes, it's hypocritical to beat the band. It is because we want to have a level playing field, that this is our approach.

"I mean, you've got guys who have done Ironman 20 times, guys who have gone to the well like nobody goes to the well," Sisson said. "... You look at the top names in our sport — except for Dave Scott, who's taken pretty good care of himself; how many of them look younger than their actual chronological age? But that's the nature of being an athlete; it's a Spartan life of self-denial and sacrifice for a goal the likes of which most of the human population can't even begin to identify with. It's a noble pursuit, but it's not without cost."

According to Sisson, the ITU's refusal to conduct hematocrit screenings in no way means the organization is lax on the issue of illegal substances.

"ITU is cutting-edge in doping control," Sisson said. "We are taking a stance, but we don't go overboard.

"They've got a test (for EPO) where there would be one false positive test in 1,000 cases — but that's not good enough, because that one person who gets a false positive makes it worth not testing. Worse than all the cheaters is inappropriately sanctioning someone who hasn't cheated."

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