Gatekeeper for clean sports
Don Catlin, one of the world’s top antidoping researchers, is tired of chasing down drugs. Now, he wants to help clean athletes prove their innocence.
The back lot behind Barry’s Plumbing doesn’t look like a fitting place for one of sport’s greatest sleuths to set up shop. The narrow alleyway is unmarked, as is the plain brick building – a former clothing manufacturing shop. Google Maps will not get you here.Skip to next paragraph
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But then again, fame and fancy office space aren’t what Don Catlin is after. It’s illegal performance-
enhancing drugs he’s targeting.
Antidoping czars plead for his help. Dopers dread it. His team was, after all, the one that cracked the designer steroid at the heart of the California BALCO scandal – arguably the biggest doping ring unearthed since East Germany’s program, involving more than a dozen athletes including track star Marion Jones and baseball giant Barry Bonds.
“[Chief BALCO investigator] Jeff [Novitsky] called me one day,” recalls Dr. Catlin, chuckling. “He’s reading me an e-mail that he lifted from somewhere and it said something like, ‘Catlin’s on to it [the drug]. Better move to another one.’”
One of the world’s most respected names in the science of doping, Catlin spent 25 years pioneering a global antidoping model in the Olympic lab at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). He oversaw the Olympic drug-testing labs at the 1984, 1996, and 2002 Games, and is playing a supporting role in Beijing.
Still, despite his success as one of the cleverest cats in a Tom-and-Jerry pursuit of dopers, Catlin has become convinced that the paradigm on which he based his work for two decades is faulty: It’s the clean athletes – not the dirty ones – who deserve his services.
It all started when a coach burst into Catlin’s office nearly three decades ago. US sprinter Evelyn Ashford, a medal favorite for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, was drawing suspicions of doping because she was beating East German “she-males.” Pat Connolly was in his doorway, begging him to prove them wrong.
“What she wanted me to do was test Evelyn and stand up and say, ‘She’s clean,’ ” says Catlin, who was then setting up a drug-testing lab for the Games. “She didn’t really understand how complex that would be to actually execute it.”
In fact, drug testing was so primitive then that Catlin couldn’t even detect a steroid he had knowingly taken as an experiment. Now he and fellow researchers worldwide have developed a sophisticated battery of tests for dozens of drugs. One can even prove that an athlete doped without needing to know what drug was used.
Yet even with all this savvy, the sports world is in something of a nuclear arms race. Almost as quickly as scientists can devise new tests, pharmaceutical companies pump out new drugs that dopers can abuse – or that allied chemists can tweak to foil current tests.
“Sometimes you can add a hydrogen or carbon molecule that would modify the weight of the product, and then you can’t scan for it,” says Sabrina Benchaar, whom Catlin hired in April at his new firm, Anti-Doping Research (ADR).
Dr. Benchaar’s current project shows how difficult the task can be. She is trying to develop a way to detect human growth hormone (HGH) in urine samples. Though the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has piloted a blood test for HGH, two of the biggest professional sports organizations – Major League Baseball and the National Football League – have said they’re waiting for more scientific validation, and players’ unions have opposed blood testing. If researchers could develop a foolproof HGH urine test, it could do much to clean up the dugout and the sidelines.