Scientists have confirmed that the prohibited performance enhancing drug actually helps elite Kenyan athletes to run faster.
A four-week dose of EPO, in a study carried out among athletes in Eldoret, increased performance by 27 seconds in the 3,000 metres race.
EPO is commonly used to boost the production of red blood cells and encourage more oxygen flow in the body.
The study published last week was funded by the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA) and led by Prof Yannis P Pitsiladis of University of Brighton, UK. Other researchers in the study were from Moi University, Eldoret, Ethiopia, Estonia, South Africa and Italy.
Although a number of Kenyan runners have recently turned positive for the banned substance, Prof Pitsiladis says until now there has been no evidence to show that EPO actually enhances performance among local athletes.
Available evidence, the study says, shows EPO to enhance performance in athletes in low to sea level altitude areas.
“It has remained unknown whether similar effects would be observed in high altitude-adapted endurance runners such as Kenya’s,” says the study. Prof Pitsiladis says the study was targeted at addressing this gap.
“We assessed whether EPO enhances oxygen carrying capacity in runners from high attitude areas and if this improves their performance,” says the study.
The team had recruited 20 endurance runners from Eldoret, considered a high altitude area. Eighteen were long distance runners in 5,000m, 10,000m, half marathon and marathon while two were in 800m.
All the subjects had undergone a medical assessment and voluntarily assented to the study, which had been approved by the ethic committees from Moi University and University of Glasgow, Scotland.
“Subjects were requested to maintain their normal training but abstain from official sporting competition for the duration of the research study,” the report says.
Under supervision the athletes self-injected with EPO every second day for four weeks. Oxygen levels and performance on a motorised treadmill were closely evaluated. The results were compared to a similar experiment carried out at near sea-level altitude in Glasgow involving caucasian athletes.
The study concluded that EPO increased blood oxygen carrying capacity and endurance performance among the Kenyan and Scottish athletes, which may be reflected in competitive events.
The authors say the findings give dopingauthorities hard evidence that EPO gives athletes, including those from high attitude areas such as Kenya, undue advantage against clean competitors.
From these findings, the authors intimate there could be more intense monitoring of Kenyan elite athletes for the use of EPO.
“There are indeed concerns about the risk of the misuse of altitude exposure by some athletes in order to mask blood doping practices such as the administration of EPO,” says the study.
Prof Pitsiladis and his team say Kenyan athletes are currently under intense social pressure to perform well due to the economic rewards associated with elite running.
“This unique social, psychological and economic situation may only increase the likelihood of doping behaviour,” warns the study. Intense search on why Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes have become such consummate world beaters in middle and long distance races started in earnest after the 1968 Mexico City Olympic.
Several factors have been investigated, including the high altitude, diet, culture and genetics but all have failed to provide the answer.
An earlier study (2014) among 327 elite Kenyan athletes by Kenyatta University and the University of Stirling, UK, for WADA showed athletes to have poor knowledge of banned substances.