ERYTHROPOIETIN AND ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE

Weekend Australian July 7-8 1990

JOHN Black laments his inquiry into drugs in sport is being associated with the recent drug-testing of Sydney footballers.

Mr Black's biggest fear is that a drug being hailed as a miracle treatment for kidney failures could turn into a testing nightmare for Australian sporting administrators.

Erythropoietin, or EPO, could cause the death by heart attack of young athletes and is impossible to detect because it is a natural hormone.

The drug is banned for use in sporting contests by the International Olympic Committee but is available on the black market in the United States and Europe.

Mr Black said the drug was blamed for the recent deaths of 12 Dutch cyclists.

EPO is being tested for use on kidney patients in Australia by the Australian Drug Evaluation Committee but Mr Black warned there had to be methods established to test whether the drug was being used unlawfully. Although a miracle drug for about 3000 Australian kidney patients, its effect on athletes could be diabolical, Mr Black said.

Erythropoietin is a hormone produced naturally in the kidneys. It creates red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body to nourish tissue and muscle. Patients with damaged kidneys cannot produce the hormone.

When injected, the manufactured EPO eliminates the need for repeated blood transfusions required by these patients.

With athletes it is a different story. Taking the drug enhances red blood cells, meaning there is more oxygen in the blood. The athletes usually take a drug found in rat poison to thin the blood again and prevent heart attacks. Inevitably, some athletes misjudge doses of the potentially fatal drugs and are having heart attacks in their sleep in their early 20s.

"Healthy athletes in their 20s just don't have heart attacks but this is what is happening," Mr Black said.