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More dope tumbles out of Tour de France closet.

France's senate, after a five-month investigation focused on sports doping, released a report yesterday that confirms what many have long suspected: use of the banned substance EPO was rife in cycling in the late 1990s, before there was a test for the drug. During the course of the inquiry, it was found that 1998 Tour de France champion Marco Pantani and runner-up Jan Ullrich used the banned blood-booster to fuel their performances. Pantani was suspended in 1999 from the Giro after failing a random blood test; ironically, he died in 2004 at the age of 34 of an accidental drug overdose. Ullrich, the 1997 Tour winner, has already admitted to blood doping and was last year stripped of his third-place finish in the 2005 Tour. The senate heard from 138 athletes, drug testers and officials from 18 sports, including rugby and soccer. The report includes 60 proposals for improving anti-doping measures, while also recommending taking away disciplinary power away from sports federations and giving it to the French anti-doping body (AFLD). The point is, is there anything surprising about this report? We all knew it since long, didn't we? That the Tour de France cycling race and doping have almost always been coexistent. The allegations have been loud and strong since the race began more than 100 years back, in 1903. In those days though, there was "official permission" to dope. As there were no hi-tech performance-enhancing drugs available in the market then, riders, it is said, used to consume alcohol in a bid to get that extra boost. The trend continued till the late sixties, when the first anti-doping tests were held during the 1966 Tour de France. Gradually, as the anti-doping measures increased, riders began to device new and innovative ways to combat the anti-doping officials. And when most other drugs became detectable, riders began using Erythropoietin (better known as EPO) -- a drug to increase red-cell production. It was difficult to detect because once injected, it becomes part of the body's metabolism. After being released into the blood stream it binds with receptors in the bone marrow, where it stimulates the production of red blood cells (erythrocytes), while also increasing the body's oxygen carrying capacity. It effectively gives the athlete an "extra" unit of blood, which enables performance improvements in endurance sports because of the extra oxygen carrying capacity. American cyclist Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France for seven straight years, between 1999 and 2005, but despite widespread suspicion of drug use, was never caught. He continued to deny all allegations until January 2013, claiming that he never had any positive test in the approximately 600 drug tests he was subjected to during his cycling career. His lies were finally nailed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which accused Armstrong of "running the most sophisticated doping programme the sport has ever seen". He has subsequently been banned for life from the sport and has been stripped of all his Tour titles. The question here is, can we ever expect a dope-free world? Celebrated British middle distance runner Sebastian Coe, summed it up nicely during a chat with this paper sometime back: "We have to be realistic. It's probably never going to happen. But the positive side is that, things are improving -- the punishments are getting tougher, we are getting more sophisticated. We have closed the gap, but we are also dealing with human nature here, and the nature of human nature is such that there are always going to be people who will opt for something beyond moral means. We have to keep closing the gap and be permanently vigilant. We have to be very aware that this is a battle we cannot lose..." That says it all.

Gulf Times Newspaper 2013

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Publication:Gulf Times (Doha, Qatar)
Date:Jul 25, 2013
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