Experts Suspect High EPO Use

Back in the 1964 Olympics, a Finnish cross-country skier won two gold medals. But he didn't know he had a genetic advantage, a mutation that enabled him to go longer on the ski slopes without getting tired.

However, today a drug barred by the World Anti-Doping Agency can also give Olympic athletes incredible endurance. It's called EPO, or erythropoietin, an stimulant that cause the body's bone marrow to produce more oxygen-carrying blood cells. Experts say it could be the drug of choice for long-distance speed skaters and skiers at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"I don't say everybody's doing it," said cycling coach Antoine Vayer. "I'm saying everybody who wants to do it, can do it and can hide what he does."

Widespread EPO use was first discovered at the 1998 Tour de France, where three teams were penalized or thrown out of the Tour following the discovery of widespread distribution and use of the drug. This week, promising up-and-coming Russian cross-country skier Natalia Baranova-Masolkina was removed from her Winter Olympics team for using EPO.

The New Hidden Booster

However, apparently, subsequent crackdown on EPO has not convinced doctors that athletes are not still using it and finding better ways to cover it up.

"At a very high level, you cannot afford to give that type of advantage to your opponent and have any reasonable expectation of winning," said Pennsylvania State University epidemiologist Charles Yesalis.

One way athletes may try to conceal EPO use is by using Aranesp, a new powerful version of the drug that is impossible to detect.

"They don't have to worry about who knocks on their door, or whether they get a blood sample or urine sample," Yesalis said. "They're going to go undetected."

Anti-doping agencies hope to have a reliable test for Aranesp ready by the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens.