By MARK FORBES
Wednesday 13 September 2000
SYDNEY – Elation and confusion surrounded the International Olympic Committee’s historic decision to implement a test for EPO at the Sydney Games.
Elation has dissipated with question marks over the test’s effectiveness. The confusion remains.
In Lausanne, on August 1, the Australian EPO research team was hurried through the hubbub of waiting journalists and officials in the IOC foyer to a press announcement of the verdict on the test. They, too, were unsure of the details of the decision.
Because of the heavily accented English from the Belgian officiator, the scientist behind the initial test breakthrough, Robin Parisotto, was a little confused.
It emerged that the most reliable EPO blood test, favored by the Australians, had been rejected by the IOC. Their “off” model, which could accurately detect use of the banned performance enhancer up to 25 days previously, was dumped in favor of a second “on” test, valid for only about three days.
Conservative IOC members, along with some of the scientific experts, were concerned Australian proposals for blood tests alone would not stand up to legal challenge. The IOC supported a French urine test that detected use within a 24 to 72 hour period, alongside a blood test.
The urine and the shorter-term “on” test would be used at the Games, the chairman of the IOC medical commission, Prince Alexandre de Merode, announced. Both tests would need to detect EPO for a positive result to be recorded.
Following the announcement, Parisotto was clearly upset. The “off” test had faultless trials and he believed two separate blood tests, taken on different days, would provide definitive results.
He knew the IOC model would let drug cheats off the hook. The effects of EPO, which can boost oxygen levels in the blood, and therefore performance levels by up to 15percent, peak two to four weeks after use. The IOC’s choice would only uncover the drug if it had been used within the three previous days.
He was consoled and counseled by some others in the research team. But when Parisotto was interviewed by Four Corners on Monday, his feelings still showed. He was disappointed. The test was “not the perfect scenario that we would have liked for the Sydney Games,” he said.
The bodies who had backed the research project, including the Australian Institute of Sport, were delighted that any blood test was approved. AIS head John Boultbee, while conceding some cheats could escape detection, said the IOC needed a legally defensible test.
“As a scientist he (Parisotto) wants a test which is scientifically more satisfying,” Boultbee said. “But the IOC needs a model which is going to stand up in court.”
According to Boultbee, once the IOC had opted for the urine test, it did not want an “incompatible” blood test that detected use more than three days ago. Such a test could have thrown up many positives that could not be confirmed.
Confusion over the IOC decision had been heightened by attempts to suggest the 25-day “off” test had in fact been adopted. Until Four Corners aired, Prince de Merode continued to tell journalists that the IOC-backed blood test detected EPO taken up to 25 days before.
The IOC may have wanted every plaudit for its decision to back blood testing, unhindered by messy details and scientific criticism. It may have also wanted to confuse cheats, with inferences of a 25-day test having significant deterrent value. If so, it paid off, with the withdrawal of 27 of the Chinese Olympic team.
The Australian scientists also decided to let the misconceptions run, at least until this week.
Their justification was that spelling out the test details would have enabled cheats to time their EPO use to avoid detection.
Significantly, the EPO team is also awaiting IOC funding for further research and development of its tests.