02/28/2002 12:00AM

Blood-boosters present real threat

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TUCSON, Ariz. - If you watched the Olympic winter games, or read about them, you know that Johann Muehlegg, the German who skies for Spain, won three gold medals in grueling stamina events, and then lost one of them - the 50-kilometer classic - because of a positive test for darbepoetin.

What's darbepoetin?

It's the next step past erythropoietin, or EPO, as a blood enhancer, a stimulant of red blood cells which carry oxygen to muscles, and thus reduce fatigue and add stamina.

It was not developed to aid athletes, including equine athletes, but it is being used for that.

Its legal medical purpose is to help victims of severe anemia induced by cancer and kidney disease, but along the way professional cyclists and skiers discovered it and decided to boost their healthy natural stamina.

But it already is old hat.

Enter the new super-booster, a drug called Aranesp, developed by pharmaceutical giant Amgen, which also developed EPO. And in Russia, another product called Perftoran, which allows the blood to carry 20 percent more oxygen than normal, but reportedly with some serious side effects. You can buy it in Moscow without a prescription.

Aranesp is considered a medical breakthrough of tremendous importance, and also a huge economic booster for Amgen in its competition with Johnson & Johnson. Amgen's chairman says the future of the company will be tied to Aranesp over the next several years. EPO is sold by Johnson & Johnson under the brand name Procrit in the United States, and The Wall Street Journal says it is that company's biggest seller, dwarfing its baby shampoo and Band-Aid sales. It accounts for 19 percent of the company's profit, the largest share, and is expected to bring in $3 billion (that's with a B) this year. Amgen says it sold $1.96 billion dollars worth of Epogen, its brand of EPO, last year.

Athletes like world-class skiers and cyclists who use EPO, or now Aranesp, or darbepoetin, do not have anemia or cancer or kidney disease. They have a hunger and craving for success at any cost. And so do trainers who use the stuff on horses.

There is a spirit of denial about this, and while I highly respect and believe top-of-the-sport trainers like Richard Mandella and Thomas Amoss when they say they aren't aware of any trainers who use these things, I also believe lesser trainers who tell me the substances are being used regularly by the thin slice of cheaters looking for an edge.

I also believe cyclist trainer Antoine Veyer when he says, "Of course Nesp" - the bikers' word for Aranesp - "is being used. Everybody knows it. It is a new drug. You can buy it now but in doping control you cannot detect it." And unfortunately I believe, with fear and trepidation, researcher Dr. Bengt Saltin, who says the active molecule in Aranesp is "10 times more powerful" than that in EPO, which the British Broadcasting Company calls "the current drug of choice for cheaters in sport," and Dr. Michael Turner, a former medical officer for the British Olympic Association, now working for the Lawn Tennis Association and British Jockey Club, who says it is "inevitable" that Aranesp will be used by those determined to cheat.

What does Amgen say about all this?

A spokesman says, "We can't stop people misusing what is an important clinical medicine. The reason this company was put together was to improve human life - not to enhance performance."

That leaves the problem, it seems, to the racing chemists and drug testers and racing commissions and veterinarians and trainers. The most surprising development in the Johann Muehlegg story was that the Olympic committee says it has a test for EPO. If that is true, then the Association of Racing Commissioners International and various drug testing committees and veterinary groups should seek Olympic drug researchers and find out how they tested Muehlegg so conclusively that they stripped him of a gold medal, regardless of whether that action stands or not on technical grounds.

Is it reasonable to believe that the small but hugely damaging number of cheaters on bicycles and on skis and in weight-lifting rooms are worlds apart from the small but hugely damaging number of cheaters on the backstretch? Is it realistic to believe this is not a problem so troublesome, whether widespread or not, that detection and eradication by banishment should be the sport's number-one priority, over marketing and advertising and TV commercials, all of which it can negate?

Racing needs to make that choice, and make it quickly.