August 16, 2004 – A University of Alberta professor who recommended 25 years ago that Olympic athletes be tested for blood doping, and who later introduced hemoglobin tests to ski sports, said it will be almost impossible to catch cheaters at this summer’s Olympics.
Despite World Anti-Doping Agency head Richard Pound’s confidence in testing methods, Dr. Tapio Videman is discouraged by how difficult EPO [erythropoietin] is to identify. The U of A professor wonders whether Olympic drug testing should stop altogether.
“My understanding is that there is no way to detect in the human body the newer gene-technology products, such as Dynepo [a newer form of EPO],” said Videman, a professor of rehabilitative medicine and a 20-year member of the FIS (International Ski Federation). “Why is this not brought up? Most of the athletes know it. Either we change the methods of testing for this substance or give up testing completely.”
The peptide hormone EPO artificially improves an athlete’s endurance by enhancing the delivery of oxygen to the red blood cells--another method of blood doping other than blood transfusion. Because Dynepo, the newer form, is produced from human cell lines, it is difficult to distinguish from the hormone erythropoietin that naturally occurs in the human body. In effect, said Videman, there is no foreign substance to be detected--the basic principle that underlies current testing methods.
“Instead, we should test for abnormal levels of oxygen as a ‘fingerprint’ of whether EPO has been used,” Videman said. It’s possible that this method soon won’t work either because of the potential use of genetic manipulation, he added.
Videman, who served as a medical supervisor at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, thinks that although some athletes will be caught whether they are users of human growth hormone or steroids, the fact remains that with newer drugs on the market, the International Olympic Committee faces myriad methods of cheating.
The matter of doping had reared its head even before the Olympic Games being held in Greece opened. Controversy erupted when Greek sprinters Kostas Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou missed scheduled drug tests.
In the past, only about one per cent of athletes have tested positive for banned substances, and this number is generally considered only a fraction of those who use performance-enhancing drugs.
“The creativity of athletes and their advisors is amazing when it comes to not getting caught,” said Videman. “The athletes have advisors who know how to use these substances and avoid detection. The athletes have supporters who get them the latest drugs before they are even on the market.”
Whether it is stopping the use of the substance some time before testing to allow it to leave the body, the practice of using a catheter or hiding a plastic container in an athlete’s body to expel “clean” urine during a drug test, or diluting a drug by drinking a lot of water, Videman says the possibilities of avoiding detection are endless.
“The health care workers need to think like the police and be suspicious of everybody, which is hard to do. I’m sure they would like to think that people wouldn’t cheat.”
Videman says current testing practices give a false image that athletes who test negative are “clean,” which is not necessarily true, because substances such as Dynepo cannot be identified. He hastens to add that not all athletes are dopers.
“Unfortunately, dopers put a shadow on super-talented, hard-training athletes who don’t dope.
“I never thought I would change my views so much,” added Videman, a pioneer in creating policies to detect and test for blood doping.
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