RUNNING & FITNEWS Special Report: Q&A with Olympic Anti-Doping Founder Dr Don Catlin

Tue, 7 Aug. 2012 - 6:01 p.m. MT
Credit: Jeff Venables

A record 6,000 urine and blood samples are to be collected over the four-week period encompassing the games, and then analyzed at the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA)-accredited laboratory operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, employing 150 scientists, and measuring the size of seven tennis courts[d1] .

London’s efforts appear to be working. Nearly every day a new doping case emerges, largely as a result of the extensive pre-Olympics testing program in the six months or more prior to the games. The actual number of cases that have come to light since Olympic Village opened on July 19 is at a record low. A handful of athletes from Colombia, Russia, Uzbekistan, and Albania failed tests in London, whereas nearly all other cases—including some high-profile ones from France, Spain, Morocco, Ukraine, Greece, and Hungary—have come to light this summer but correspond to events in the months or years before. Then on Monday, August 6, U.S. judo competitor Nick Delpopolo was expelled from the games for testing positive for marijuana. Over 100 athletes have now been sanctioned, and currently the total number banned by the IAAF is fast approaching 200.

The U.S. only has two WADA-accredited labs, the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory in Los Angeles and the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Salt Lake City. The UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory was founded in 1982 by Don Catlin, MD, professor of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at UCLA, with a grant from the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee; it was the first U.S. laboratory accredited by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Dr. Catlin ran the doping control tests for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and has served at every Olympics thereafter.

Dr. Catlin was director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab for 25 years and grew it into the world’s largest testing facility of performance-enhancing drugs. Today he is focused on research and testing development at the Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization Anti-Doping Research, Inc. He is also the Chief Science Officer for Banned Substances Control Group, a company that tests supplements.

Dr. Catlin is Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at UCLA, former chairman of the Equine Drug Research Institute’s Scientific Advisory Committee, and a longtime member of the IOC Medical Commission.

Last week, American Running caught up with the busy but incredibly generous and amicable Dr. Catlin by phone in London to discuss the improved and increased testing at this year’s games, as well as what it might hold for the future of the Olympics. We also got a brief history of anti-doping efforts and a glimpse of his personal philosophy for both testing and disciplining athletes.

—    Jeff Venables, Editor, Running & FitNews®


What do you think of the London testing process in comparison to other years?

It’s really far better than any other year. It’s a giant step forward, and the reason is very simple: money. A major pharmaceutical company is underwriting the entire cost.

[GlaxoSmithKline, a London 2012 partner, has provided the new testing facility, which was unveiled in January of this year. Typically 50% of anti-doping activity is funded by the IOC and 50% by participating countries that are taxed to belong to WADA.]

The lab is stocked it with the very best instrumentation, and brought in people from all over the world who work in WADA-accredited laboratories and so they know what to do and how to do it. It’s the most thorough testing I’ve ever encountered.

What is the impetus for this? Is it essentially an act of charity by a large pharmaceutical underwriter?

Yes, it’s basically that.

Do you see a kind of tipping point for anti-doping attitudes, then?

Well, this is a huge change. I ran the Olympics in ‘84, ‘96, and 2002 [in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City], and we never had this kind of support. They have probably close to 30 million U.S. dollars—that’s huge. They’re a very hot lab; they’re not going to miss much.

What surprised you most when you first started to look into doping in sports?

It became very clear to me that the drugs are very powerful, and can remarkably change one’s position in sport. If the drugs didn’t work, we wouldn’t care, but they do work—they really do enhance performance.

Would you characterize it as rampant, and the public’s past perception as maybe somewhat naïve?

Yes. It was rampant when I started in the early ‘80s. Drugs were all over the place, and we had trouble testing for them. We did not have the kind of money that’s available today. The IOC sent emissaries to Los Angeles to find somebody who could do anti-doping [for the 1984 games]. They asked me if I’d develop a lab, and explained carefully that athletes, particularly in Europe, did not want to compete in America because there was no lab, and they felt that Americans were doping.

How is the London crackdown affecting the international community now? Certain athletes have pulled out voluntarily beforehand—are countries getting spooked by fear of London’s lab?

It’s hard to say. They don’t exactly tell us what they’re doing. We get some inside information and need more.  We do know that there are always some people out there that just don’t get the message. We had a couple of Albanians that were positive a week or so ago, and that’s probably because Albania doesn’t have a sufficient amount of athlete supervision and education, and so the athletes will take what they can find. If you don’t have a country that’s on top of things, it’s unfortunate.

The British Olympic Association has taken exception to WADA failing to ratify the UK’s mandatory lifetime ban. What’s happening there? Do you think to a certain extent it might be posturing on London’s part?

[The BOA's policy of punishing drug cheats with lifetime bans was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. WADA declared the policy "non-compliant" with its anti-doping code.]

I don’t think so. There are a lot of people that feel that the ban ought to be a lifetime ban. I don’t feel that way. What I would like to see is the list divided into groups where in some cases there are lifetime bans. For example, a drug like Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid—you don’t accidentally take it. It’s there for one reason only, to make yourself bigger and stronger. I would support a lifetime ban there. But other drugs that are on the WADA list you can ingest incidentally or by accident because they are available over-the-counter. I am not in support of a lifetime ban in those cases, and certainly not in the case of marijuana and drugs of abuse like it.

[WADA president John Fahey said earlier this year that WADA may look at changing the criteria for cannabis as a banned substance for athletes. Presently, a substance appears on the banned list if it is proven to be performance enhancing, goes against the spirit of sport, or is dangerous to the health of athletes. Marijuana qualifies as a forbidden drug, with athletes facing a two-year ban if it is found in their system. Some experts say it could prove helpful in sports like shooting or golf where a steady hand is needed. U.S. judoka Nick Delpopolo, who tested positive for marijuana, finished seventh in his 73-kg event.]

The temptation for banned-substance use is great in the arms-race nature of international Olympic competition. Is athlete education a significant part of countering that temptation?

Education is an enormous part and we put a lot of time and effort into it. In some areas it works very well because athletes used to take drugs that were available over-the-counter, but that were also stimulants and could improve your performance. They were not necessarily doing it deliberately to enhance performance. So once you educated them, taught them about those drugs, and—when they tested positive—kicked them out for two years, they began to learn very fast.

But with anabolic steroids, growth hormone, and erythropoietin, it’s deliberate. Today we still have problems with those drugs. We can cover all the versions of EPO [erythropoietin], but coverage is not that great. The issue is one of sensitivity: The common person believes if you have had a test and it was negative, then the person who submitted the sample was not using any banned drugs. Unfortunately, that’s far from the truth. People can get by using small doses and various tricks to avoid detection. The problems continue, but I would say they’re getting better.

The formation of WADA was a giant step forward. That agency was formed by the IOC, the original anti-doping group in the world. The IOC decided to provide funding to develop a special agency completely dedicated to the growing problem of drug use.

Is the retesting of older samples—like from the World Championships in South Korea—happening independent of this year’s games, or is London instigating it?

This is happening as part of the IOC rules. They have the right to go back eight years and re-analyze samples. If you have a drug that’s being used today and your method [of testing for it] isn’t working very well or it’s a new method, you can go back to samples that were collected eight years ago and test them again.

That puts a long statute of limitations on getting away with something.

Yes, and the IOC is beginning to use that. We didn’t use it before; now we’ve started to use it. And that is a very powerful deterrent.

In a broader historic context, is it just that we all finally want to move beyond doping?

At first when I did the testing the IOC was underwriting all the costs. The international committee didn’t actually pay out of their pocket; they got the local organizing committee to pay. In 1982, that check was for about one and a half million. So you can see where we are 30 years later.

Do you feel that if the games were held this year in another city, we’d have that same tipping point of anti-doping sentiment and action, or is it specific to London?

What’s unique about London is the drug company. In the U.S. we have drug companies that of course have the same amount of money—massive amounts. But they generally shy away from doping issues. They’re supportive. They help us by telling us of new drugs that are coming, but they rarely provide funding. I did get a small multi-year grant from Amgen, which makes EPO, and that’s been helpful to me in a personal research way, but we’ve got the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world and so it’s frustrating because they’re basically on the sidelines on this issue.

So there’s a long way to go still.

Yes. If we had the Olympics in the states in four years, we’d certainly go around to all the pharmaceutical companies and try to get them interested. They recognize that their products are being used, but they view it as the downside of sport and don’t put any real [monetary] support into it.

Will London hopefully set a precedent for others to follow as we go forward?

We just have to keep working on the project, which means trying to get more sensitivity in our methods so we can reach down to the lowest levels that are found sometimes in urine. That needs research. And then we need more testing, which comes from the countries and WADA.

There just isn’t that kind of money available in national budgets, so that will keep the problem going for a long time. If the attitude changes and countries really get behind the anti-doping movement, that could change.


Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews®, the publication of the American Running Association.


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