BRISBANE, Aug 31. SWIMMING'S world governing body FINA has finally approved the use of blood tests to detect erythropoietin (EPO), one of the most dangerous banned drugs in sport.
The chairman of FINA's sports medicine committee, New Zealand doctor David Gerrard, said today the first tests would be conducted at the Goodwill Games this weekend on the condition that the swimmers agree to be tested.
"We shouldn't kid ourselves that there aren't people out there using it," Gerrard said.
"If they did disagree, there'd have to be a sufficient number of them…but I don't think it will come to that stage."
Australia's Olympic and world champion Ian Thorpe said he welcomed the announcement. Thorpe strongly criticized FINA for refusing to test for EPO at last month's world championships in Japan when almost every other major sport was already testing for the potentially fatal drug.
"I hate having my blood taken with a needle with a passion, but if this is going to clean up our sport then I'm more than happy to put my arm out," Thorpe said.
United States head coach Dave Salo said the Americans would also support the introduction of EPO tests although he felt it should have been done much earlier.
"The United States is on record saying we'll support any tests that will help clean up our sport and we'll be the first in line," Salo said.
"But I think they should have just tested everyone at the start of the meet rather than announcing it right in the middle.
"They really should have been testing for this a long time ago but we've got to start somewhere and now is as good a time as any."
Gerrard said FINA had decided to immediately start testing for EPO because of the negative publicity which followed their refusal to conduct similar tests at the world championships.
But he defended FINA's decision not to test in Japan, saying the laboratories over there were not equipped to carry out the highly sensitive tests.
"The big difference here is that the Sydney laboratory used for last year's Olympics is sophisticated enough to do the tests," Gerrard said.
A combined blood and urine test for EPO was approved and used at last year's Sydney Games but because of the uncertainty of the tests, athletes had to fail both before they were considered to have returned a positive.
Gerrard said the same procedure would apply at the Goodwill Games and random testing would begin as early as this weekend.
"In fairness to the athletes, they will be allowed to talk about it before we start the tests," Gerrard said.
"When they came to the Goodwill Games they were told there would be no blood testing."
EPO artificially boosts the number of oxygen-carrying red blood cells which are important in endurance events. But it can be fatal by making the blood thick and gluey, leading to a breakdown of the entire circulatory system.
Swimming has been plunged into a series of doping scandals in recent years including the 1998 World Championships when a Chinese swimmer was caught smuggling human growth hormone into Australia and four of her teammates were banned for using diuretics.
EPO has also become the most talked about drug in world sport after Russia's Olga Yegorova won the 5,000 meter title at the recent track and field world championships in Edmonton after testing positive for the drug.
She was cleared on a technicality and allowed to compete despite the threat of boycotts by some of her rivals.
Yegorova has denied using drugs, insisting the tests were wrong and has entered the Goodwill Games despite the threat of more protests.
However, she will not be tested for EPO in Brisbane because track and field's world governing body has decided not to test for EPO at the Goodwill Games.