Catlin Perspective on Netflix Documentary ‘Icarus’ and Russian Doping

By Oliver Catlin

Icarus coverWith the high-profile “Icarus” documentary now available on Netflix and in selected movie theaters, I wanted to take a moment to provide perspective on some points my father, anti-doping pioneer Dr. Don H. Catlin, and I have considered in regards to “Icarus” and Russian doping in general.

We offer a warning to those who have not yet seen the film that the following contains some spoilers.

Participation in ‘Icarus’ Documentary

When a documentary maker contacts my father looking for help for an anti-doping piece, he tries to lend his support and expertise whenever possible. He did so with Bryan Fogel, even though he was unfamiliar with Fogel’s previous work. In his request for participation, Fogel stated that the primary aim of his film would be a historical review of anti-doping scientific developments and a discussion of my father’s many achievements in the field and anything else my father wanted to discuss. Fogel also mentioned an interest in doping himself prior to riding in a top amateur cycling race to hopefully demonstrate he could beat the anti-doping system. “You are the expert on the subject—I am the filmmaker… let’s discuss and formulate a schedule and a plan and hopefully be aligned!” he wrote in his pitch.

As a key expert at the highest levels of sports drug testing for more than three decades, Don was excited to have an opportunity to share his historical insights about a myriad of professional experiences and developments in the field. Though he hesitated at the thought of helping someone to dope or attempt to game a system he had helped to build, he found himself curious how doping might impact someone in a real-world race environment. Fogel, however, was eager to discuss how difficult it was to evade detection and where the current holes in the system might be and how they could be exploited. Don shared some discussion with Fogel about the filmmaker’s ideas, but orchestrating the doping activity or trying to demonstrate that the current anti-doping system could be thwarted was not something my father was interested in doing.

About Grigory Rodchenkov

Over the years, my father has crossed paths with many other capable, dedicated scientists in the anti-doping field. He has enjoyed working with this committed group to help build the best anti-doping system possible for the protection of sport and the athletes. When Fogel asked if there was anyone he knew who might be able to help with his doping agenda, my father believed his dedicated colleagues, especially those in WADA-accredited labs, would decline as he did. Without question, most of them have high ethical standards and scrupulous laboratory practices, and take pride in their anti-doping work. He could think of only one person who might be willing to assist Fogel: Grigory Rodchenkov, then the director of Russia’s anti-doping laboratory in Moscow.

My father had known Rodchenkov for many years and respected his scientific work but over time was less certain of his ethics. While my father could never have imagined how extensive the Russian state-sponsored doping and its cover-up were at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics under the direction of Rodchenkov, he did believe Rodchenkov was operating in a different realm than the rest of his colleagues.

My father and others in the anti-doping community had been suspicious of Russia’s doping activity for many years. Prior to the airing of the earth-shattering ARD exposés in Germany in 2015 and 2016, allegations of widespread malfeasance in Russian track and field were publicly reported in 2014 with the help of courageous athletes by the ARD’s award-winning journalist Hajo Seppelt.

Some Context About Russian Doping

Russian state-sponsored doping of its top athletes has likely been going on for years. At one point in “Icarus,” Fogel raises the possibility that it goes all the way back to 1968. Thanks to the Russian magazine Smena, we know that in 1988, prior to the Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, the Soviet team was pre-tested aboard a ship offshore. The Soviets purportedly wanted to ensure their doped athletes could pass the IOC tests. Victor Uralets, the director of the Moscow anti-doping laboratory from 1980 to 1992, essentially corroborated this story publicly in 2016 and indicated that he left the lab because he did not believe what he was being asked to do was ethical or safe. He now works at a testing lab in Northern California where he no longer has to deal with what he described as the embarrassment involved with cheating. We commend Victor for having the courage to leave a corrupt system.

In 2002, at the Winter Olympics at Salt Lake City, two Russian cross-country skiers, as well as a Spanish cross-country skier, were suspended after testing positive for darbepoetin alfa, a new form of the blood-booster EPO, or erythropoietin. It was the first time the test, developed by the French scientist Dr. Françoise Lasne, had been employed successfully. My father, who oversaw the drug testing at these Olympics, martialed the introduction of this new test that produced these historic positive results. Perhaps these early findings were merely the tip of the iceberg in the larger scheme of Russian doping that has been unveiled.

A Silver Lining

One small bit of silver lining loosely discussed in “Icarus” is the actual effects of doping on Fogel’s cycling performance, which decreased the year he rode dirty. By originally dedicating himself to training, proper nutrition, and riding clean, Fogel came in 14th place in the Haute Route Alps in 2014, 4th in his 40 – 49 age class. With a focus on doping, beating the system, and riding with a dirty mentality the following year, he came in 27th place and 12th in his age class. While a mechanical issue impaired a direct comparison of the two performances, we are left to wonder what the real effect of his doping might have been. Did it improve performance or did it hinder it, as Fogel’s results appear to show?

Fogel described it being easier to train and recover when he was doping, that the banned substances made it mentally easier to perform at a high level. When you are in a race situation and constantly challenging your maximum capability, however, is such an effect really beneficial? Or could the mental strength necessary to overcome suffering exhibited by clean riders sometimes actually enhance performance more than banned drugs? The mental capacity to deal with suffering and pain is vital in the grueling sport of cycling, and we wonder if that is actually diminished if one makes the sport easier by doping.

Many people will probably view “Icarus” and be dismayed as we were by its sordid tale of Russian doping, but we are also buoyed by the larger picture. We must remember it was not Rodchenkov or Fogel who were responsible for unveiling the ugly truth of state-sponsored Russian doping; it was the courageous athletes caught in its web, such as Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaliy, who at great risk to themselves came forward to expose what was happening. The athletes themselves are driving change and endorsing clean sport more and more, and that is extremely powerful.

Oliver Catlin is President of BSCG (Banned Substances Control Group), a leading dietary supplement testing and certification provider since 2004. A graduate of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, he has worked as an executive in the anti-doping and dietary supplement industries for nearly fifteen years.

Dr. Don H. Catlin and Performance-Enhancing Drug Tests

The Development of Key Performance-Enhancing Drug Tests

Since founding the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory in 1982 and serving as its director for 25 years, Don H. Catlin, M.D., has been instrumental in discovering new performance-enhancing drugs and establishing methods to uncover athletes’ use of various substances. His research, while both conducting doping control and simply focusing on new and evolving drugs, has been vital in the creation of many of the tests currently used to detect performance-enhancing drugs. As the New York Times noted in 2007, “Some call Dr. Don Catlin… the father of drug testing in sports.”

He and his son, executive Oliver Catlin, founded the well-regarded supplement certification provider BSCG (Banned Substances Control Group) in 2004. The Catlins’ expertise is unparalleled and often sought on the more complicated issues facing both anti-doping research and supplement testing. Here, we’ll take a brief look at some of Dr. Catlin’s key performance-enhancing drug (PED) breakthroughs and where more information can be found about them.

Dr. Don Catlin, anti-doping pioneer

Renowned anti-doping pioneer Dr. Don H. Catlin in his Los Angeles laboratory in 2008. (Photo from The Catlin Consortium.)

Developed the CIR Technique to Distinguish Natural from Artificial Testosterone

In the late 1990s, Dr. Don Catlin was the first to develop and offer the carbon isotope ratio, or CIR, test to determine whether testosterone or an anabolic steroid has been made naturally by the body or has come from a prohibited substance. This highly accurate test was the first technique capable of detecting synthetic testosterone, rather than simply gauging the body’s reaction to the substance. Dr. Catlin used for comparison a person’s endogenous reference compound (ERC) such as cholesterol to help determine the body’s natural carbon make-up. The testosterone CIR test was considered revolutionary and has proven useful and highly reliable; despite many challenges by athletes testing positive over the years, the Court of Arbitration for Sport has never found any fault with it.

More Info

See an info-graph about his test put together in 2006 for the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2006/08/01/sports/02landis-graphic.html

Academic Publication

Catlin DH, Hatton CK, Starcevic S. Issues in detecting xenobiotic anabolic steroids and testosterone by analysis of athletes’ urine. Clinical Chemistry 1997;43:1280-1288.

First Reported Use of a Form of EPO (Darbepoetin Alfa) in Sport

While overseeing the drug testing at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Dr. Catlin revealed the use of a form of EPO, or erythropoietin, (darbepoetin alfa), for the first time in sport. He used a new test developed by French scientist Dr. Françoise Lasne to detect this long-lasting form of EPO, a then newly approved drug for anemia patients that helps boost red blood cells and aids in endurance but can lead to serious health outcomes such as heart attack and stroke. Three Olympic cross-country skiers, including gold medalists Larissa Lazutina of Russia and Johann Muehlegg of Spain, were suspended and their medals stripped after they were found using the substance in Olympic competition.

More Info

For a thorough introductory account of this story, read the nonfiction book “The Night Olympic Team” (Boyds Mills Press, 2008), written for older kids by Caroline Hatton, Ph.D., one of the scientists working in the Olympic lab under Dr. Catlin.

Academic Publication

Catlin DH, Breidbach A, Elliott S, Glaspy J. Comparison of the isoelectric focusing patterns of darbepoetin alfa, recombinant human erythropoietin, and endogenous erythropoietin from human urine. Clinical Chemistry 2002. 48: 2057-9. Full Text PDF

First Reported Designer Steroid, Norbolethone

In 2002, Dr. Catlin was the first to report the use of a designer anabolic steroid in sport. He identified norbolethone (or norboletone) for the first time in an athlete’s urine sample. Norbolethone had been developed in the 1960s as a treatment for growth and weight gain but was deemed harmful and never brought to market. Patrick Arnold and Victor Conte introduced it to athletes through the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO). Dr. Catlin’s discovery of the substance was a wake-up call that some athletes were abusing designer steroids. The Chicago Tribune named Catlin Sportsman of the Year for 2002.

More Info

More about norbolethone and Dr. Catlin’s original test can be found on PubChem, a website of the U.S. National Library of Medicine: https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/norbolethone#section=Top

Academic Publication

Catlin DH, Ahrens BD, Kucherova Y. Detection of norbolethone, an anabolic steroid never marketed, in athletes’ urine. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 2002. 16:1273-5.

Second Reported Designer Steroid, THG

In 2003, Dr. Catlin identified and developed a test for THG, or tetrahydrogestrinone, the second reported designer anabolic steroid. This discovery famously came from a sample contained in a used syringe delivered anonymously to USADA (United States Anti-Doping Agency), who subsequently passed it along to Dr. Catlin for testing. THG was the active ingredient in “The Clear,” a previously “undetectable steroid” created and distributed by BALCO to some top American and British Olympic and professional athletes. Dr. Catlin credited his large team of capable researchers and chemists with finding the substance and developing a new test for it, saying the accomplishments “took all the skills that are represented in this lab.” In 2009, Newsweek magazine named coach Trevor Graham’s decision to send the syringe to USADA one of the decade’s “Top-10 History-Altering Decisions.”

More Info

For more about Dr. Catlin and the BALCO story, read this 2004 Washington Post article by Amy Shipley: “One Mastermind Behind Two Steroids,” July 29, 2004. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A22151-2004Jul28.html

Academic Publication

Catlin DH, Sekera MH, Ahrens BD, Starcevic B, Chang YC, Hatton CK. Tetrahydrogestrinone: discovery, synthesis, and detection in urine. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 2004. 18: 1245-9.

Third Reported Designer Steroid, Madol or DMT

In 2004, Dr. Catlin identified madol, the third reported designer anabolic steroid. Madol, short for methylandrostenol, and also known as DMT, or desoxymethyltestosterone, (not to be confused with dimethyltryptamine) was the active ingredient in the third generation of “The Clear,” found during a raid of the BALCO lab in 2003. The steroid, a potent testosterone derivative that can seriously damage the liver and heart, was designed in the early 1960s but never made it to market. After being discovered in dietary supplements, DMT was made a controlled substance in the United States in 2010.

More Info

For more about DMT, THG, and BALCO, see the news article “Athletics: New steroid designed to fool drug-testers,” from Reuters, The New Zealand Herald, Feb. 2, 2005. http://m.nzherald.co.nz/sport/news/article.cfm?c_id=4&objectid=10009252

Academic Publication

Sekera MH, Ahrens BD, Chang YC, Starcevic B, Georgakopoulos C, Catlin DH. Another designer steroid: discovery, synthesis, and detection of ‘madol’ in urine. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry 2005. 19: 781-4.

Multiple Reports of New Anabolic Steroids

In 2005, Dr. Catlin discovered five new designer anabolic steroids in dietary supplements sent to him for testing by the Washington Post. One substance found in the supplement Halodrol-50 closely resembled oral turinabol, the principal anabolic steroid abused by East German Olympic athletes in the 1960s and ’70s. Some 800 athletes later reported serious ailments after taking that steroid, referred to as “the blue bean.” Halodrol-50 was discontinued but a version called Halodrol resurfaced online in 2016.

Dr. Catlin also found the new designer steroid methasterone in the supplement Superdrol. This discovery prompted anti-doping authorities to focus on curtailing the sale and use of pro-hormone supplements, often toxic to the liver. WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency) soon added the compound to its list of banned substances in sport, and in 2009 the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) raided Bodybuilding.com in part over the sale of the compound, which represented the largest enforcement action up to that time in the supplement industry.

More Info

See early Washington Post story, “Steroids Detected In Dietary Tablets,” by Amy Shipley, Nov. 30, 2005: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/sports/2005/11/30/steroids-detected-in-dietary-tablets/938990b4-5956-48a5-8804-7f5ae6d561e3/?utm_term=.9d357da69081

“Designer Steroids: Hide and Seek” by Amy Shipley, Bonnie Berkowitz, and Christina Rivero, Washington Post, Oct. 18, 2005. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2005/10/18/GR2005101800648.html

“Forgotten victims of East German doping take their battle to court,” by Luke Harding, The Guardian, Oct. 31, 2005: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2005/nov/01/athletics.gdnsport3

“Bodybuilding.com, LLC and Jeremy DeLuca Plead Guilty in Federal Court to Violating FDCA,” FDA News Release, May 22, 2012. https://www.fda.gov/ICECI/CriminalInvestigations/ucm305494.htm

Academic Publication

Catlin DH. Anabolic steroids. In DeGroot LJ, Jameson JL, eds. Endocrinology Elsevier Saunders 2006; 5th Edition: 3265-82. (Book chapter.)

First Report of the Designer Stimulant Methylhexaneamine

In 2006, in another analysis of a dietary supplement at the behest of the Washington Post, Dr. Catlin was first to identify the designer stimulant methylhexaneamine, a potentially deadly amphetamine-like substance. This compound was found in Ergopharm’s Ergolean AMP, a product formulated by BALCO chemist Patrick Arnold, who was then awaiting sentencing for his role there. The product was pulled from the market, but in 2011 USADA issued an official warning to athletes to avoid the dangerous stimulant in a range of supplement products after a rash of positive test results. Unlike some problematic supplement ingredients, this compound often could be found in supplement ingredient lists—under the names methylhexaneamine, 1,3-dimethylamylamine (DMAA), dimethylpentylamine (DMP) 4-methylhexan-2-amine, Geranamine, and geranium oil, extract, or stems and leaves.

More Info

For more information, see the original Washington Post story “Chemist’s New Product Contains Hidden Substance,” by Amy Shipley, May 8, 2006. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/07/AR2006050700913_2.html

USADA Advisory “Beware: Your Supplement Could Cause a Positive Test,” June 16, 2011. http://www.usada.org/athlete-advisory-methylhexaneamine-and-dietary-supplements/

A Multitude of Contributions

Dr. Catlin’s contributions to detecting PEDs have extended beyond these remarkable breakthroughs. Among other things, he determined the pharmacokinetics of steroids such as androstenedione (“andro,” formerly sold over the counter) and DHEA, provided analytical consulting as part of government action to identify and expose designer drugs like the aromatase inhibitor 6-OXO and the designer steroid Tren in supplement products, and succeeded at adapting a test for the potent blood-boosting drug CERA (sold under the brand name Mircera) for equines.

More Info

For more information about Dr. Don Catlin and his current work safeguarding supplements, visit the BSCG website at http://www.bscg.org/.

Note: The term “designer steroid” is defined as a synthetic steroid derived by simple chemical modification from another steroid, often an anabolic steroid. The word “designer,” however, can refer to compounds that are either novel or recycled and repurposed as performance-enhancers. Today these problematic substances sometimes find their way into legally sold supplement products.

— Joseph Taylor