For almost all products and methods known in sport that are prohibited by doping rules, some sort of control mechanism has emerged over the years, but one has cried out in his absence. Blood transfusions that improve the oxygen uptake capacity of an endurance athlete could not be detected in practice if the athlete has used his or her own blood.

The matter is changing relatively quickly, says Christer Malm, an anti-doping researcher interviewed by Expressen magazine, who has been developing a test method at the Swedish company Pro Test Diagnostics for as long as 14 years. The company's already patented testing package is currently being evaluated by laboratories accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency in Oslo, Stockholm and Paris. The implementation of the method is ultimately decided by Wada.

Sergei Ilyukov, a Finnish-Estonian sports doctor and anti-doping expert, is well acquainted with the Swedish research project and considers it promising.

Photo: Jonne Heinonen

- We have kept the exact content of our research secret, until now. Now the study has been released and the first testing tools are ready, says Malm, who believes Wada’s assessment will be completed by the end of the year.

The earliest method would be in use next year.

Sergei Ilyukov, a Finnish-Estonian specialist in sports medicine and an anti-doping expert, said on Friday that although the signs are promising, the work is still in progress.

- Of course, the quality of the study shows that the report has exceeded the high publication threshold of a highly respected publication in the field. Autologous (self-blooded) blood transfusion has been a problem in endurance sports, but it is an exaggeration to say that the risk of getting caught has been completely non-existent so far, Ilyukov recalls.

Austrian skier Max Hauke ​​was caught in a police raid at the 2019 World Cup in the middle of a bloodbath. However, such a raid is only possible in countries where doping is criminalized. For example, there is no in Finland.

Photo: Dominik Angerer

Several athletes have been caught in the method of following the so-called blood count of athletes throughout the year. on the basis of a biological passport, when there has been no reasonable explanation for the fluctuation of the blood count other than blood refueling. In addition, for example, two Austrian skiers were caught in the second World Championships in the winter, even by the work itself in a police raid.

- A biological passport has been a good indirect way to expose the matter. In the same way as in the 1990s, hemoglobin limits were set for skiing in order to curb the use of the epo-hormone, which was then still not visible in the tests. The parameters of the biological passport will alert you if the use exceeds the number of so-called micro-doses. No 1990s dosing comes into play anymore. A micro-dose is just a micro-benefit, Ilyukov says.

He is well acquainted with the Swedish project and its researchers. A research project on the subject is also under way in Denmark. Attempts are made to reveal, in a simplified manner, the transfusion of the age of red blood cells and the antigens formed by their membranes.

- The Swedish project is at a stage where it can be piloted. Wada's laboratories are currently testing the test itself.

However, sports doctor Ilyukov reminds that the game is not over when the new test for the first time shows red.

- When it first grabs an athlete with a big star status, this challenges it. Thereafter, the reliability of the test is considered legally. This has been the case in the past for both the epo- and growth hormone test and the test for foreign blood, i.e. the test that revealed a homologous transplant.

Tyler Hamilton, a star cyclist, struggled against the latter in the International Petitions Body for Sport (CAS), and lost in 2004.

Ilyukov sees the Swedish project as a good step forward. His own anti-doping research has recently focused on how and to which athletes testing should be most clinically targeted. In addition to biochemistry, the topic includes statistics.

- The best result in terms of clean sport is obtained when all these fruits of modern research are combined.

Reijo Jylhä, who served as the head coach of the Finnish cross-country team in 2002–2006 and 2014–2018, followed the change in blood doping culture from the core of the sport world. Several generations of the species have had time to lose faith that an autologous blood transfusion test would ever be completed.

Reijo Jylhä (right), who ended his head coaching career in the spring of 2018, recalls that this is not the first time that a family of endurance sports has been promised, in the spirit of test fear, almost harmless self-refueling will soon be history.

Photo: Pete Aarre-Ahtio / IS

- In my first main coaching session, a big discussion was about epo-hormone. When it came to the test, this refueling with its own blood returned to talk and seemed to regain popularity.

Jylhä reminds that there was a lot of talk about blood refueling in Finland as early as the 1970s and 1980s.

The ex-head coach notes that the hopes of the skiers during his years of coaching were often raised in order to finally catch up with refueling with their own blood.

- Images are strong. For the first time, I remember hearing at the turn of the millennium that the test was coming to an end. At the beginning of the last decade, there was talk that plastic tubing used in blood transfusions would leave plastic residues visible in tests in the blood.