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Convention 2010
June 23-26
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Investigative reporting
Fifth place

Racial profiling emerges
The USOC cooperated in a controversial Australian project, contributing funding and test subjects, to determine parameters for EPO testing.

Orange County Register

First of a three-part series

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The United States Olympic Committee provided Olympic-caliber athletes for an Australian drug-testing project this year that included blood testing to determine potential differences between African American, Asian and other ethnic groups.

USOC also endorsed the Australian Institute of Sport program that gave Australian athletes a potentially fatal performance-enhancing drug banned by the International Olympic Committee.

1. Racial profiling emerges

How test is being conducted

2. Blood testing proceeded despite doubts

3. Exum says he was kept out of loop
Documents obtained by the Orange County Register reveal that the USOC's participation in and support of the AIS' $2 million effort to develop a blood test to detect the use of artificial erythropoietin, commonly known as EPO, for the 2000 Games came despite ethical and scientific objections by the USOC's director of drug control, who resigned in part because of those objections.

The confidential AIS research proposal, outlining the plan for the project, and other confidential AIS and USOC documents obtained by the Register reveal a repeated emphasis on obtaining "blood profiles" of African Americans for the AIS project.

"There are some disturbing things in there," Dr. Herman Ellis, USOC drug testing crew chief since 1994, said of the AIS documents.

Ellis also is the chairman of occupational and preventive medicine at the Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tenn. "There are a lot of red flags."

"To be honest I was surprised anybody would be proposing something like that," Larry Payton, a drug-testing crew chief at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the director of student health at American University, said of the AIS project.

"I understand that a lot of people feel the need to do something to get rid of drugs in sports but this is an attempt at some sort of quick fix that's just not well thought out and certainly not appropriate."

EPO is a hormone produced naturally in the body. Synthetic EPO has been available for pharmaceutical purposes since the mid-1980s.

Currently there is no IOC-certified blood or urine test that detects use of synthetic EPO, an injected hormone used primarily by endurance athletes because it boosts the user's red blood cells, increasing the body's oxygen-carrying capacity.

Yet, despite concerns of several USOC anti-doping committee members about the nature of blood testing, the USOC, according to the organization's records, covered $10,000 in expenses incurred by AIS officials while performing blood tests on U.S. athletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs this past spring.

USOC officials even proposed recruiting U.S. Air Force Academy cadets to participate in the study when it became clear that the AIS would fall short of its goal of blood testing 100 Americans.

During a March 4 USOC anti-doping committee meeting, documents show, committee members even raised the possibility of injecting Air Force Academy cadets competing in athletics with EPO. A group of U.S. weightlifters tested in Colorado Springs in April also said the purpose of the test was originally misrepresented to them.

The athletes said they volunteered for the blood tests after they were initially told the test was for Human Growth Hormone, a banned muscle building performance enhancing substance prevalent in weightlifting and other strength events. The lifters said they later found out their blood tests were part of the EPO project.

"We were misled," said Wes Barnett, a bronze medalist at the 1997 World Championships.

The documents also outline the procedures in which healthy athletes, some as young as 18, were given EPO and intravenous iron supplements, the latter which posed a"risk of life threatening allergic reaction."

Critics of the AIS project said they are further made suspicious of the institute and its motives by the presence of a high altitude house next door to the laboratory in Australia,where the EPO test is being developed. In the artificially thin air chamber, elite Australian athletes lived for several days, even weeks in an effort to increase their red blood cell count.

Although high atltitude chambers aren't illegal under IOC rules, the IOC is so concerned by their ethics and medical safety that it has banned them from the Olympic Village in Sydney and is expected to re-evaluate its stance on them after the 2000 Games.

"Mad scientist stuff," said Dr. Wade Exum, who resigned June 2 from his position as USOC director of drug control in part because of his opposition to the USOC involvement in the AIS project.

USOC documents show that USOC anti-doping committee chairman Baaron B. Pittenger and other committee members and leading USOC administration officials aggressively pushed the AIS project despite ethical concerns raised repeatedly by Exum. Other committee members voiced concerns about potential political problems of U.S. involvement in ethnic-based-blood profiling.

"Under no circumstance would we identify athletes by race," Dr. Ralph Hale is quoted in the March 4 meeting minutes. "That, that would certainly get us in trouble."

Hale, however, remained one of the projects staunchest supporters.

"We made no special attempt to identify our athletes by race," Pittenger said this week.

Yet U.S. athletes who submitted to blood tests conducted by the AIS at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in April said they were asked on profile forms for the tests to state their ethnicity. And three top AIS officials have confirmed that of the approximately 80 athletes tested in Colorado Springs around half were identified as African Americans.

"Maybe half of them were black," said Peter Davis, the AIS EPO project director. "We got a pretty good sample of African Americans in the U.S. in Colorado. [The USOC] were very cooperative with our group when we were over there and they helped us immensely."

The AIS project is divided into two parts. The first part was a group of 106 of club-level athletes in Canberra and Sydney who were administered EPO and an iron supplement or a placebo over a period of up to eight weeks to determine the changes in a series of blood parameters. The second part was to develop reference ranges in elite athletes for the blood parameters. To establish the parameters, the AIS performed blood tests on 1,200 elite athletes from a range of ethnic groups in 12 countries including the United States.

But critics charge that the blood profiling based on ethnicity is at the very least misguided and, according to a leading manufacturer of pharmaceutical EPO, unnecessary.

"I have never heard of any differences among the different ethnic groups or races in terms of having different sensitivity to EPO," said David Kaye, a spokesman for AMGEN, the Thousand Oaks-based pharmaceutical company that supplied EPO to the AIS project.

The AMGEN statement reinforces a belief held by some critics of the AIS project that the blood profiling of ethnic groups amounts to genetic racial profiling. Concerns about what will happen to the blood drawn from the different ethnic groups after the blood profile tests are performed, that the blood might be used for other tests not outlined in the AIS proposal have also made critics suspicious of the projects.

The AIS project has also revived concerns with African Americans and others that some in the international sports science community believe and are determined to prove that the success of African American athletes can be explained through genetics.

"That's exactly what this is: racial profiling," said Allen Murray, a biochemist and president of the Irvine-based Glycozyme Inc. Murray is developing a urine test to detect EPO. "These guys are going on a fishing expedition."

"What immediately came to mind when reading [the AIS documents] is that this is really profiling based on race," said Payton. "African American athletes, for lots of reasons, have had great success, but there's always been this contention that there was some intrinsic reason for the success of this group."

"My major concern in looking at this thing was that this was something that can result in what I have always taught to be racial profiling," said Exum, who announced plans to file a lawsuit against the USOC. USOC officials have portrayed Exum as a disgruntled employee.

"They (the AIS and USOC) will look at the different parameters in what they are calling 'different' ethnic groups, and they're saying on the surface that they hope the 'different' ethnic groups don't show much variation.

"But my experience with them has been that they're always looking for some sort of variation so that they can say that this ethnic group is different from that ethnic group. and so deserves some different kind of treatment."

"I think it's hard to draw the line between whether it's racial profiling or just looking at different populations of the world," said Dr. James Betts, a USOC anti-doping committee member.

"Do I think it's racially motivated? No."

"I understand (African Americans') sensitivity," said Larry Bowers, a professor at Indiana University Medical Center, director of one of only two accredited Olympic testing labs in the U.S. and also a member of the USOC anti-doping committee. "I can only reassure them that it was certainly not intended as a slant on any ethnic group."

AIS officials said they are surprised by the criticism, which they said is off base.

"I wasn't aware that there were problems with this in the U.S.," said John Williams, secretary of the AIS ethics committee.

AIS officials said the blood profiles of different ethnic groups, especially African Americans, are necessary for the test to withstand legal challenges from athletes who test positive for EPO.

Williams and other AIS officials also point out that the project was approved by both the IOC and Australian government, which each contributed $1 million to fund the project.

According to AIS and USOC records the project was also reviewed by Sept. 20 at the Australian Government Analytical labs by a committee of four international experts including Bowers.

"Anyone trying to put a racial angle on our study is absolute nonsense," said Robin Parisotto, a chief researcher at AIS. "We're not doing any genetic studies on these people."

In fact, said Williams, that in coming to Colorado Springs, AIS was"really after blood profiles from African Americans."

"So we have tried to get the major ethnic groups," Davis said.

"They can't say, 'Well we've been at altitude or I've been smoking or I've been injured or I'm gay or whatever.' Hopefully, we've looked at the major parameters that athletes are likely to come up with, although they can be pretty creative I'm sure.

"Anthropologically, to get really picky, there's really only Caucasian, Negroid and Mongoloid and then I think there's a fourth one is a like Australian aboriginals or whatever they're classified as.

"So there's really only four ethnic groups in the world and everyone stems from those four so we certainly have enough from each of those four groups, and we're trying to get the aboriginals as well.

"I don't think the genetic or physiological differences vary too much with the different sub groups within those four major groups. What I'm saying is we don't have Arabians [in the blood profiles] but Arabians are no different than English, they're technically the same. They look different, sound different but they're the same as are South Americans and white Americans."

So are there differences between African Americans and say Kenyans?

"Don't know yet," Davis said. "(The data) hasn't been done."

But that's an area the AIS is looking at?

"Yeah," Davis continued. "We're doing Kenya right now, in fact. We've also done athletes in South Africa, and there was a fairly good mix of blacks in South Africa."

Are their differences between Caucasians and Negroids?

"Yes, yeah, well potentially," Davis said. "There are in other parameters. That's hopefully what we'll find out that there are or there aren't differences."

AIS officials and project supporters in the USOC maintain blood profiling is necessary in order to meet legal and IOC standards.

"Unfortunately, the legal system is such that if you don't have a sufficient, broad base of data, you don't have enough data," said Bowers. "The first line of defense if some African American tests positive at the Olympics, of course, is going to be African American blood is different to Caucasian blood or Asian blood is different to Caucasian blood. And they're going to say 'did you test it on African American blood?' And we wouldn't look very good in court if we hadn't tested it. That's why we did blood profiling."

"The whole purpose," said Davis,"of the profiling is to look at the (blood) parameters, the profile, the normal reference ranges for the different ethnic groups, blacks, Asians, English, Caucasians sorry, different age parameters, injury, altitude, non-altitude, smoking and so forth. So we have the profiles of as many different scenarios that you can come up with."

The AIS' Parisotto said he tried to set a up group of athletes to administer EPO to in Boston was unable to because of logistical problems.

The AIS had more success in finding participants in the United States for the blood profiling part of the project, although AIS officials acknowledge they fell short of their goal of testing 100 American elite athletes.

In a Dec. 16, 1999, letter to USOC assistant executive director Jim Page, then AIS sports science director Dr. Ross Smith wrote that the institute"would like to have a high number of Afro Americans in the" blood profile group.

In a Jan. 28 conference call for the USOC standing advisory committee for the project Hale relayed the AIS request for African American participation, although he added it would be difficult to find a large percentage of African Americans in Colorado Springs.

The international panel of experts that reviewed the AIS proposal in September and included the USOC committee member Bowers also recommended the "effect of variations between ethnic groups must be researched."

In the March 4 anti-doping committee meeting Pittenger states, "Originally, Australia was going to do this through their own population and it pointed out to them that it was a very small population with very little ethnic diversity. And they really needed to have a much broader base of blood samples."

Later in the meeting, after committee members raised concerns about racial issues, Pittenger said. "We told them in the return letter that we would provide them with samples so we're representing a typical American team for the Summer Games. And we specifically told them that we would not identify anything by race."

But a form titled "USOC SUBJECT CONSENT FORM FOR PARTICIPATION IN HUMAN SUBJECT RESEARCH: United States Olympic Committee In Cooperation with the Australian Institute for Sport," that U.S. athletes tested on April 24 at the Colorado Springs training center were asked to sign, states:"the research team is attempting to sample elite athletes from diverse sports, age, gender, ethnic heritage, place of residence, and use of dietary supplements groups."

It also reads that the "study will be conducted on elite athletes from several countries and a range of ethnic backgrounds."

Another consent form asked athletes to specifically state their ethnicity, according to athletes tested in Colorado Springs.

"We were definitely asked," recalled Barnett.

"It was right there on the form: give us your race. They had a box for everything from Eskimo to Iranian to Mexican. They wanted that."

Barnett said he refused to fill in his ethnicity.

"But," he added,"who's to say they didn't do it when I left."

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News