Despite the promise of an effective new drug test, the USOC drags its heels

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Dispatches, April 1998

These Guys May Be on EPO, Does Anyone Care?
Despite the promise of an effective new drug test, the USOC drags its heels
By Paul Keegan

At 53, Allen Murray swims five times a week, and when he spots his friend and frequent opponent Phil Whitten at meets, he promises to kick ass in the 200-meter breaststroke. But like most recreational athletes, Murray doesn't want to win at any cost. "I want a fair race," he says.

That's become something of a quaint notion in the world of sports, as one scandal after another involving performance-enhancing drugs has come to light. And ironically, it's taken an obscure masters swimmer like Murray, who also happens to be a biochemist, to dramatize the weakness of the athletic establishment's resolve to make sure its competitors are clean.

At a meet in 1993, Murray ran into Whitten, editor of Swimming magazine, who began deploring the growing use of the latest designer drug, called EPO, adding that there was no reliable test to detect it. Murray, who runs an Irvine, California, biotech firm called Glycozyme Inc., couldn't understand why, since he knew a lot about EPO — shorthand for the hormone erythropoietin — from his research on similar substances. Figuring that the Olympic games have the greatest vested interest in eradicating drugs, in 1995 Murray applied for and received a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Olympic Committee to figure out a way to detect recombinant EPO in urine tests. A year ago this month, after presenting the promising results of his early trials to the USOC, he applied for the final $600,000 needed to bring his test to market. Since then he's waited. And waited. And waited some more.

The human body produces EPO naturally, and the recombinant form was developed in the late eighties primarily for the treatment of kidney disease. Endurance athletes — mostly cyclists, but also long-distance runners, cross-country skiers, and swimmers — discovered that EPO injections could result in astonishing increases in aerobic performance, as much as 10 to 15 percent. The drug increases endurance by stimulating the production of red blood cells, which transport oxygen. The drawback, however, is that too much EPO thickens the blood, makes the heart pump a great deal harder, and puts an illicit user at serious risk of cardiac arrest and stroke. Although no fatalities have been definitively linked to EPO, the drug has been blamed for the sudden deaths of at least 20 European cyclists in recent years.

Nonetheless, according to a number of cycling insiders — and even a few former professional riders — EPO remains quite in vogue. Top-level professional cyclists have come to believe that "without EPO it is impossible to win," according to Sandro Donati, a professor of exercise physiology and a member of the Italian National Olympic Committee's antidrug commission. Former French rider Nicolas Aubier, who says he retired after the 1996 season at age 25 because he didn't want to take drugs, adds, "Frankly, I can't imagine a rider belonging to the top 100 and not using EPO." But despite this open secret, the Union Cycliste Internationale, the sport's main governing body, has been conspicuously unenthusiastic about the quest for an EPO test, in effect leaving a vacuum for the Olympic umbrella organizations to fill.

Given all this, one would think that USOC officials must have been ecstatic when Murray was able to produce an antibody that affixes itself to recombinant EPO but not the natural kind. In fact, says Murray, when he first reported his results, they were ecstatic, and invited him to apply for the funding needed to complete his test. But now, after spending a great deal of his own time and money, he's fed up with the delays. His EPO test, he says, "is dead in the water" — along with hopes that EPO abuse can be detected and punished at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Not so, according to Wade Exum, the USOC's director of drug-control administration. "We're still very interested in it," he says. "But there's an issue of both money and the prospects for success. It's hard when someone asks you for $600,000 and says maybe we'll get something, maybe we won't."

But Murray is confident of his research and has even submitted a stripped-down proposal for $150,000 at Exum's request. Still no word. In fact, Exum acknowledges that Murray's proposal hasn't even been formally considered, citing staff changes that have slowed the formation of a review committee that's supposed to evaluate Murray's findings. Does Exum know when such a panel will be formed or when it might act? "I have no idea."

In the meantime, the International Olympic Committee flatly turned down Murray's request that it bankroll the rest of his research. (The IOC has announced several times that it is on the verge of introducing its own test for EPO, but the Italian doctor who announced this supposed breakthrough has himself been investigated for allegedly being a supplier of EPO to athletes, and Murray maintains that the IOC's approach is not practical.) So, as the Olympic committees fiddle, for now users of EPO can continue to take the drug without fear of sanctions.

"This sounds like a very familiar scenario," says Dr. Robert Voy, Exum's predecessor at the USOC during the 1984 and 1988 games, who quit over what he calls a "lack of commitment" by the committee to create an effective drug-testing program. Whitten, who calls the use of EPO, by Chinese swimmers in particular, "endemic if not systemic," is more blunt: "The Olympic committees are not really interested in developing an effective test for EPO for fear the number of athletes they will catch will be large and embarrassing and it would cost them sponsorship money."

Murray, for his part, admits that he hopes to profit by eventually licensing his test but maintains that he has no interest in making a killing in the drug-testing business. Rather, he says, he's simply baffled by the maze of bureaucracy and political intrigue he has stumbled into — and adds that he now believes something dire will have to occur before the problem he's trying to address is taken seriously in this country. "The USOC won't get worked up unless a big-name athlete gets beaten by an athlete strongly rumored to be on EPO," he says. "Or, worse, an American athlete overdoses and dies of a massive heart attack."

E A R   T O   T H E   G R O U N D
"Sometimes people cry when they see the bill."

Victor Chao, co-owner of the Marksmen Club, a privately owned shooting range in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, of the high cost of renting AK-47s and grenade launchers. The new club charges $20 per grenade and a hefty $30 for every three seconds of machine-gun fire.

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