IRELAND's preparations for the Olympic Games have been devastated this weekend after middle distance runner Cathal Lombard tested positive for the banned blood-boosting drug EPO. The 28-year-old Cork-born athlete, who came from nowhere to represent Ireland at last summer's World Championships, was notified on Friday of his positive test for the drug.

The news has cast a dark shadow over the Ireland team with less than a week to go before the start of the Games in Athens. If found guilty he faces the axe from the Olympic team and a potential two-year suspension. A spokesman for Athletics Ireland described it as "a black day for our sport".

It's understood that the Irish Sports Council took the decision to target Lombard after his dramatic breakthrough over the past 12 months, which included knocking more than three minutes off his personal best time for the 10,000m. Lombard, who was previously regarded as little more than a good club runner, ran an Irish record 27:33.53 at Stanford University in the spring, making him the second fastest European over the distance this year.

The test was carried out in St Moritz, Switzerland, where he recently travelled for altitude training. Lombard, who quit his job as a solicitor to concentrate on athletics, had chosen to make his final preparations for Athens on his own and turned down a place at the pre-Olympic training camp in Limassol, Cyprus.

He spoke recently of his plan to find a quiet corner to himself somewhere in Italy, where he could forget there was an Olympics on, then fly into Athens two days before he was due to run in the 5,000m heats on 25 August.

EPO is by far the most effective performance-enhancing drug used in sport and its use is thought to be widespread in distance running. It works by increasing the concentration of red cells in the blood, thus increasing the body's oxygencarrying capacity. A test to detect the drug in a urine sample was only discovered three years ago.

Lombard is coached by Joe Doonan, the Cavan school teacher who was behind Catherina McKiernan's four silver medal wins at the World Cross Country Championships. Lombard ran for Leevale, the same club as Ireland's top distance runner Mark Carroll and was a good cross country runner who, in his own words, "never looked beyond the local scene." Last year, however, he started to knock large chunks off his personal best times over 5,000m and 10,000m. He began the 2003 season with a personal best 5,000m time of 13:58.50 in Dublin and 10 days later lowered it to 13:39.54 in England. In July of that year he lowered his 10,000m best from 30:35.96 to 28:05.07 with a world class run in Watford.

Then in the spring, in what was then the fastest 10,000m race in the world this year, he set a new Irish record of 27:33.53. It had taken the previous holder, Carroll, most of his career to break John Treacy's old mark.

Lombard always denied that his improvements were down to anything other than the improved methods of training he had learned under Doonan. "He introduced me to numerous things that radically changed the way I trained, " he said recently.

"Now I do a completely different type of gym work, a lot of biometrics, hopping and bounding exercises, a lot of medicine ball work, sprinting and drills." But his sudden form raised more than a few eyebrows, with many comparing his improvements to those of Geraldine Hendricken, who made a similarly dramatic breakthrough onto the international scene in 2002 and later tested positive for nandrolone. She too was targeted by the Irish Sports Council, who will be happy that their doping control policy is being seen to be so effective.

Patsy McGonagle, the vice president of Athletics Ireland, said an athlete had been informed of a positive test and he had been given until Tuesday to respond.

He added: "It's a black day for our sport. It's going to cast a shadow over the whole Olympics for us. Obviously there's a lot going on out there doping-wise. We've all read about the scandal in America.

Now we're in the picture. You always think it's someone else but now we're right at the centre of it." A source close to the sports council said that it was the huge improvements in Lombard's performances and his "pattern of movement" that raised their suspicions and led to his being targeted.

"Endurance sports warrant close attention anyway and he had obviously shown a very marked improvement in performance levels over a very short period of time. It was less than two years. Performance-wise, he was in the same boat as Geraldine. It was natural that he was targeted.

On top of that he was out of the country an awful lot. He was in America. Then he was in Switzerland. Then he was going to Italy. Of course that proves nothing in itself but sometimes with athletes their pattern of movement can suggest evasion. All these things go together to form a profile." Lombard is understood to be in Italy this weekend and was unavailable for comment.