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SLOC gears up to test for drugs

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As the Olympic torch relay captures worldwide attention, another ? quieter ? hand-off is taking place: The Salt Lake Organizing Committee takes responsibility for all Olympic-related drug testing starting Jan. 29 when the Olympic Village opens.

At that time, Dr. Douglas Rollins, head of SLOC's anti-doping efforts, will kick-start his own race to complete the scheduled urine and blood testing of athletes in a timely fashion. The goal is to both deter the use of banned substances and to catch those who do use them.

And because it can take place anywhere on the continent where the Games are being held, some may be tested in unusual places in keeping with plans to do precompetition testing in 4 percent of the athletes to look for anabolic steroids and masking agents without giving them any individual notice. SLOC is "working desperately" with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and with the Canadian Center for Ethics in Sports to get a contract signed so those arrangements can be made to test some of the athletes in other places.

Who will be tested in that round has been predetermined ? sort of. In October, SLOC took the number of athletes from each National Olympic Committee (NOC) and figured out how many tests it would have to do to achieve 4 percent. The U.S. team, for instance, has about 200 athletes. So SLOC randomly drew eight numbers and locked them away to be matched with names later. Once the U.S. team officially declares its roster, the names will be randomized and then matched against those numbers.

Countries with very small athlete contingents will be lumped together and 4 percent of the total tested. About 140 athletes from small NOCs fall into that category.

And some folks won't be surprised at all. Every athlete in an endurance sport ?biathlon, cross country, Nordic combined and long- and short-track speedskating ? will be subjected to blood analysis to look for EPO (erythropoietin) before their first competition.

That's the single most daunting task anti-doping volunteers face, Rollins said. Blood must be drawn from 850 athletes right at the venues and tested on the spot "without disrupting competition or an individual athlete's concentration." In cases suspicious for EPO use, the blood and a urine sample will be sent to the official IOC-approved laboratory set up in Research Park.

"No one has ever done this much blood testing, but I suspect by the time we start the Games, I'll begin to relax. I think we're in very good shape in terms of planning," Rollins said.

First- through fourth-place finishers and two other competitors selected randomly will be tested after each competition for anabolic steroids and masking agents.

Rollins will have about 300 volunteers available to help him, including trained phlebotomists to draw blood.

All that testing won't eliminate the possibility of cheating. No test has yet been approved for banned human growth hormones, for instance. They're not testing for insulin, though use is prohibited by athletes who are not diabetic. But testing by the World Anti-Doping Agency and USADA has already snagged a number of athletes using banned substances.

Someone who tests positive can challenge the finding before results are released to the public. A positive in the lab triggers the meeting of a small committee of the IOC Medical Commission, the athlete and his or her representative. If the committee decides it's a positive test, it's turned over to the IOC Executive Commission for review. "We want it tight, the I's dotted and T's crossed," Rollins said. Within 12 hours, a finding by that body moves to the IOC Executive Board, which can strip a medal or ban that athlete from competition, among other things.

Athletes can then challenge the finding to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international body that is pretty much the court of last resort.

WADA will monitor the entire process as an independent observer, with its people present at every doping control station and in the lab.

E-MAIL: lois@desnews.com