A Discussion with Dr. Don H. Catlin and Oliver Catlin
Don H. Catlin, M.D., a renowned longtime sports anti-doping researcher, is considered a father of drug testing in sport. He founded the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory prior to the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics and served as its director for 25 years, growing it into the world’s largest lab testing for performance-enhancing drugs. Today, among other things, he is Chief Science Officer at BSCG (Banned Substances Control Group), a leading provider of analytical testing and certification programs for dietary supplements, natural products, ingredient suppliers and manufacturing facilities.
Oliver Catlin is president of BSCG. A well-respected executive, he has been working in the arenas of sports anti-doping and dietary supplements for more than a decade.
Dr. Don Catlin, left, and Oliver Catlin
In the interview that follows, Dr. Catlin and Mr. Catlin discuss the upcoming summer Olympic Games in Rio, the Russian doping scandal and dietary supplement issues related to drugs in sport.
Q. Dr. Catlin, as a former longtime member of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) Medical Commission, how do you feel about the IOC’s recent decision not to ban all Russian athletes at the Rio Olympics?
Dr. Catlin: I was not happy to wake up a few days ago to the news that the IOC did not ban Russian athletes from competing at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio. I was hoping to see a serious statement made against the practice of state-sponsored doping. Instead the IOC turned the decision over to International Federations and an IOC executive committee. Several high-level recent reports (McLaren, WADA report 1C, German television ARD) established that the state of Russia was clearly involved with directing doping activities in an operation that included,Russian lab director Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the state ministry of sport, and the FSB security forces (renamed from the KGB). The extent of the activities warranted a ban in my view. This decision presented an opportunity for the IOC to show its dedication to anti-doping ideals and make a serious statement in support of clean sport, but sadly they failed to make that statement
Mr. Catlin: If we don’t stand up for anti-doping in this instance, when will we? I think that perhaps the consideration of a complete ban was challenged by a lack of precedence for banning an entire country as a result of anti-doping as well as liability concerns. Clean athletes were going to be harmed whether a total ban was enacted or not; arguably more clean athletes are impacted by not proceeding with a ban. Although I don’t believe there is a precedent for keeping an entire country out of the Games due to systemic doping, there is perhaps a precedent for systemic doping factoring into whether a sport is allowed to remain an Olympic sport. It was not long ago that the status of baseball and softball as Olympic sports were affected in large part due to concerns over systemic doping in baseball. Surely a number of clean athletes were affected by the decision to remove these sports, and for a longer period of time than the Russian ban was being considered. Liability is also perhaps a concern. With gold medals being worth upwards of $10 million or more, the risk of Russian athletes suing for damages may have been a factor in the IOC’s decision.
Q. What do you make of Sochi Olympics lab director Dr. Rodchenkov’s claims that he helped to oversee the systematic doping of Russian Olympic athletes at the behest of the Russian government?
Dr. Catlin: I was deeply disappointed to learn that Grigory Rodchenkov, someone I had called a friend and a colleague, had become a central figure in the Russian doping scandal that has spanned many years. In an in-depth interview with the New York Times in May, Dr. Rodchenkov revealed his role in doping Russian athletes. He did this by providing cocktails of drugs that were designed to clear the system quickly, aiding Russian agencies in a scheme to cover up positive test results, and in the case of Sochi testing he participated in an elaborate sample switching scheme enabled by the FSB. Dr. Rodchenkov remained in the lab from midnight to dawn. He knew which samples were positive. He passed those through a hole in the wall to an FSB agent, who used a new technique to open the tamper proof bottles and replace the positive urine with a clean sample. The bottles were closed and passed back to the lab for testing. It is hard for me to stomach that kind of deceit from someone I had known for many years. Thankfully, most of the lab directors in the WADA system are dedicated and ethical scientists who work hard to defend anti-doping and clean sport.
Mr. Catlin: I think most observers of the Russian doping scandal realize that Russia presents a very different environment. There is often no option other than to follow state directives. Ramifications of challenging the state can be severe. The recent McLaren report noted that the Russian laboratory personnel did not have a choice in whether to be involved in the state-directed system; their employment required participation. We are focused on the current scandal but I think it is fair to say that this is not the first occasion that my father, or the larger anti-doping community, have been suspicious of Russian doping. Nor is Russia alone in having issues, we have seen problems previously with Chinese swimmers, East German athletes, and even in the U.S. with result shredding scandals and ‘educational’ testing in the 80’s.
Q. Some have gone so far as to suggest that systematic doping threatens the very existence of the Olympics. How concerned are you that we could actually reach a tipping point where the general public might no longer believe the Olympics is a fair competition?
Dr. Catlin: The Olympics have been involved with controversies for many years, including doping scandals. I think back to the Ben Johnson affair at the 1988 Summer Olympics at Seoul, South Korea, and what that did to shake up the system at the time. The Olympics have survived all such controversies in the past and will likely survive this one. It is true that each drug scandal takes its toll, and this one is pretty gross. But a scandal can also help expose systemic weakness, which if addressed, can improve anti-doping efforts for the future.
Mr. Catlin: It’s sad that the Russian doping scandal has cast a pall over the Rio Olympics. The silver lining is that it has put the anti-doping issue on center stage, as it should be given its importance to the Olympic family. Years ago, my father helped to create the International Olympic Charter against Doping in Sport, and hopefully commitment to those ideas will help lead us past the current situation. The important thing is for us to recognize the problems and find real solutions.
Q. What changes or solutions do you think are necessary to protect against these kinds of concerns at the Olympics in the future?
Dr. Catlin: One thing we need to evaluate is the process involved in reviewing and reporting positive results and to create more oversight when it comes to results management. For years we have put result management largely in the hands of stakeholders without adequate independent review. In WADA’s review and criticism of its own activities a year or two ago, they suggested they needed more commitment and participation on behalf of stakeholders. If we continue to allow results decisions to be managed by state sport agencies or federations like IAAF, we face the risk of result manipulation. Decision-making is not always in the hands of the experts anymore. Twenty years ago the IOC doping control system was largely managed by a group of lab directors and scientific experts. Today the IOC has abdicated much of the responsibility and expertise and put it on the shoulders of WADA, an administrative body. In its zeal to conduct its mission, WADA has at times created an adversarial relationship with lab directors, which can diminish their impact and value. I would like to see the system return to a more collegial process in the future.
Mr. Catlin: In addition to added oversight, I think we need to review the resources available to the pursuit of anti-doping. The world expects a lot out of anti-doping forces, and rightly so, but the resources also have to be there to support the task at hand. The worldwide budget for anti-doping is perhaps $300 million. That sounds like a lot until you consider that we have to test a pool of 100,000 or more athletes around the globe, staff and maintain more than 35 laboratories, and must create methods to find clandestine and evolving doping agents and improve detection capabilities. The resources dopers have to thwart the system have been shown to far exceed the resources we have available to fight for clean sport.
Q. Russian media outlets and others in Russia have asked you what can be done to legitimize the participation of their athletes in this summer’s Olympics. What do you tell them?
Dr. Catlin: It is hard to evaluate things on an athlete-by-athlete basis with the extent of the Russian doping now exposed. Some may have been effectively tested outside of the Russian system and perhaps those athletes could be allowed to participate legitimately. Ultimately, Russia needs to replace all the agencies that have been involved and put a new person in charge, someone who is clearly not involved with doping, and then build from there. The process will not be quick or easy. The international community needs to ensure oversight in the process in order for us to trust the new system.
Mr. Catlin: The big question is what percentage of Russian Olympic athletes were involved in the state sponsored doping; 5%, 20%, 50%? It spanned many athletes and sports based on the report statistics, but I don’t know if we really have all the necessary facts to answer that question. Were other undetectable drugs being used that we don’t yet know about that might still be in use? I am not aware of any consistent guidelines being used to consider whether Russian athletes should be allowed to participate, and without those how do we come to consistent decisions?
Q. What are your thoughts about the retesting of samples from the 2012 London Summer Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Games that have led to a number of positive test results?
Dr. Catlin: This is a marvelous idea, and one that I supported over the years. It puts the doper at risk of being penalized for activities that may have been undetectable at the time. The testing methods are always improving and sometimes it takes anti-doping science a few years to develop an effective test for drugs that we know are being abused. This is a great mechanism for dissuading athletes from pursuing clandestine doping strategies. The IOC has shown that retesting is a potent addition to the process.
Mr. Catlin: Retesting has certainly proven to be valuable. Historically there are usually only a handful of positive results that occur during an Olympic Games. The retesting has exposed three times as many results per Olympics, sometimes even more. The added deterrence is certainly significant. The shame is that the doper benefits for several years to the detriment of the clean athletes that get elevated in placement years later.
Q. Dr. Catlin, you voiced concerns in media interviews about WADA’s closure of the Rio Olympic laboratory weeks before the Olympics were about to begin. Are you glad the lab has been reaccredited and will now handle the drug testing after all?
Dr. Catlin: Yes, I am very pleased that the lab has been reaccredited. There is much secretiveness about WADA’s actions so we never, if ever, know what the extent of the problem was that led to the loss of accreditation. While it is possible to send the samples to another lab, doing so is difficult and expensive and has many complications. Whenever the Olympics come to town the home country’s lab receives support from experts from around the globe and I have faith that the group assembled will do a great job of conducting the testing during the Rio Games.
Mr. Catlin: Some people have considered the loss of accreditation to be a flaw in the system, when in fact it is evidence of the system working. If deficiencies are found, they are identified and addressed.
Q. The drugs meldonium and oral-turinabol/dehydrochlormethyltestosterone (DHCMT) have been in the news lately. What impact, if any, do you think these substances might have at the Rio Olympics?
Dr. Catlin: I don’t think that either drug will have a major impact on the Games. The lack of consideration of meldonium withdrawal times was embarrassing and certainly resulted in a lot of wasted money and effort, but we are mostly beyond that at this point. As for oral-turinabol, or DHCMT, I do not know why there have been so many positive cases recently. The testing method for DHCMT was improved in the last few years with the detection of long-term metabolites extending the detection window from several days to several months. Perhaps that is one reason. Unfortunately, the drug remains prevalent online and has been seen as a contaminant in dietary supplement products as well. If the drug infiltrates the raw material supply for supplements, it could lead to trace amounts of contamination that the new urine-testing methodology would be more likely to expose.
Mr. Catlin: I think some athletes continue to claim they were affected by discrepancies in meldonium findings before or after the cutoff dates for withdrawal time to be considered a valid reason for a positive finding. This might impact which athletes get to participate in the Rio Games. In the case of meldonium, the WADA system addressed a substance that athletes were apparently using for performance enhancement. In the case of DHCMT, the system is now using an improved method that has a longer window of detection. In either case, additional loopholes were closed, which would seem to be good for the system overall.
Q. As key figures in both overseeing the testing of Olympic athletes and helping to protect them by providing quality supplement information, testing and certification, what general advice do you offer Olympic athletes about consumption of supplements?
Dr. Catlin: There have been numerous examples where athletes have been harmed by supplements that were spiked with drugs on the WADA Prohibited List. Over the years I helped a number of athletes fight cases against supplement companies after they had tested positive. That is one reason we created BSCG. Athletes should be cautious when considering supplements and should only take those that have been tested to make sure they are ‘clean.’
Mr. Catlin: We have worked on a number of cases over the years where supplements have been involved in a positive drug test in some fashion and have impacted careers or health. Athletes like Kicker Vencill, Jareem Gunter, and Jessica Hardy. The issues involved are complex. Some supplements include active ingredients that may be banned substances in disguise. That was the case with the Superdrol product Gunter used; it contained the powerful anabolic steroid methasterone, which also contributed to his liver failure. Other products can be contaminated with trace amounts of banned substances that can still result in a positive drug test. This was the case with Hardy, who, as a result of using a supplement, lost out on her chance to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games in the prime of her career. We started our company BSCG to test and certify products to be free of banned substances so that athletes could have confidence when using them, and to give responsible supplement manufacturers a way to distinguish themselves from others in the industry. If athletes elect to use supplements—as many do, surveys have shown—we recommend they only consume products that have been certified by a reputable third party.