Form-boosting drugs claim rocks sport research centre

The University of Ferrara, home of Italy's leading centre for medical research related to sports, is at the centre of allegations concerning the use of performance-improving drugs by Italian athletes over the past decade.

According to investigators in the judiciary and on the Italian Olympic Committee, many of the top names in Italian sports, from cycling to cross-country skiing and athletics, made use of recombinant erythropoietin, which enriches red blood cells but cannot be detected by normal drug tests.

The judicial investigation began earlier this year after police raided Ferrara University and seized computer records with the blood test results of hundreds of athletes.

So far, about 20 doctors and researchers have been formally placed under investigation, including Francesco Conconi, head of the sports medicine department at Ferrara University.

Professor Conconi looked after Francesco Moser when he took the one-hour cycling world title in Mexico City in 1984 and helped train Manuela Di Centa, the world champion cross-country skier who retired recently. Many of Italy's top athletes of the mid-1980s to the late 1990s came under the care of Professor Conconi or his assistants at Ferrara.

The city prosecutor is expected to bring charges against the professor and other doctors at the university and possibly against some chemists who allegedly supplied the drug, later this month.

In the late 1980s the Olympic Committee established a partnership with Professor Conconi's biomedical research centre through which it financed his research.

Recombinant erythropoietin, a hormone that stimulates the bone marrow to produce red blood cells far in excess of normal values, was banned by the International Olympic Committee in 1993. It is used to treat anaemia in some serious illnesses, but in a healthy person it increases stamina and resistance to fatigue.

Risks include burst blood vessels and kidney damage. But in statements made so far to both the Olympic Committee and the prosecutor's office, athletes stated that no mention was made of abnormal values when they had their blood tested.

Some of the evidence is based on tapped telephone conversations. A list of 22 athletes who had been treated with recombinant erythropoietin was recently published. The Olympic Committee is investigating the athletes involved in its drive to stamp out drug use in sport, while the prosecutor's office is basing its investigation on the hypothetical crime of administering medication hazardous to health.

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