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Dweebus Maximus
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By John Leicester, Associated Press Sports Writer

PARIS — A major loophole in the global anti-doping battle is about to be closed.
The World Anti-Doping Agency expects to shortly circulate new instructions for its accredited drug testers that will allow them to use revised methods to catch athletes cheating with EPO, one of the most widely abused banned substances in sports.

EPO-abusers who thought they had slipped through the cracks could now be in for a nasty surprise, because some samples that couldn't previously be declared positive but nonetheless seemed suspicious could now be retested. Those samples have been stored in freezers, waiting for WADA's new anti-EPO tools.

"There could be interesting cases to come," Olivier Rabin, WADA's science director, told The Associated Press.

The revised testing methodology should help confound cheats who have been using so-called biosimilars, copies of the U.S.-invented drug that are being produced by the dozens in some 20 countries around the world, in such places as China, India, Brazil and elsewhere, because manufactured EPO is crucial in medicine and thus worth billions of dollars each year.

Some of these copies are thought to have been slipping through sports' doping controls, allowing cheats to use them without being caught.

In medicine, manufactured EPO is of dramatic benefit for kidney and cancer patients suffering from anemia, a shortage of red blood cells that transport oxygen around the body. EPO -- short for erythropoietin -- counters the potentially lethal condition by stimulating patients' bone marrow to produce more red cells. For athletes who cheat with EPO, more red cells mean more oxygen for their muscles, allowing them to ride, run or swim faster for longer.

Since the 1990s, EPO has made the difference between winners and also-rans at cycling's Tour de France. It was among the banned drugs used by disgraced former U.S. track star Marion Jones, court documents showed. A test to detect the use of EPO in sports was first introduced for the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where Jones won three gold and two bronze medals, and scores of athletes have since been caught and sanctioned.

Testing for EPO is tough, not least because traces of the banned substance don't stay in athletes' urine for long.

Testers have also in recent years sometimes struggled with the additional headache of copied versions of EPO. Because of the ways in which they are manufactured, some of the copies have their own peculiar chemical signatures that that can throw off the delicately calibrated WADA-approved EPO test.

This problem has seen WADA-approved labs confronted with urine samples from athletes that they are certain contained traces of copied EPOs but which they were unable to declare as positive, meaning that the cheating went unpunished. Such cases have increased as the market for EPO copies has flourished. Up to 80 such copies may now be in production, with at least a dozen in China alone, according to WADA-funded research by experts Iain Macdougall and Michael Ashenden.

EPO copies are offered for sale on the Internet. A Web site hosted in Ukraine, for example, offers a Russian-made EPO copy, Epocrin, for euro320 for 10 vials. Epocrin is among EPO copies that are likely difficult to declare as positive using the current WADA-approved test but should be easily sanctioned with the revised method, according to one WADA-approved lab.

Rabin of WADA says he is confident that the imminent strengthening of the EPO test will "cover the field as we know it today," able to catch all EPO copies that currently exist.

The proposed changes, being fine-tuned now, will initially be circulated to labs, anti-doping agencies and others in coming days for discussion, so they can be approved at a May 9 meeting of the WADA executive committee. The changes will for the first time give laboratories the option of using a testing technique called SDS-Page in cases where the current EPO test doesn't offer a clear-cut result.

Arne Ljungqvist, chairman of the International Olympic Committee's medical commission, called the beefed-up testing "a step in the right direction for sure" but added that the IOC hasn't yet considered whether to retest samples collected at the Beijing Olympics last August using the revised method.

The revised test could, however, be applied to some samples that labs previously weren't sure about, Rabin said.

"We have got a few urine samples in the freezers that wait to be retested," he said.

Rasmus Damsgaard, a Danish anti-doping expert for the International Ski Federation, suspects that five cross-country skiers whose tests came back negative from a WADA-accredited lab in Europe last year were using an EPO copy, possibly from Russia. The skiers are still competing.

Damsgaard also believes that word spread among athletes that EPO copies were slipping past controls. The revisions now planned by WADA, he added, will mark "a milestone in the EPO test."

"A lot of people came through the loophole," he said.
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