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.

The Rio Olympics, the Russian Doping Scandal, Dietary Supplements and Banned Substances in Sport

DSCN0492A 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.

Catlins

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.’

BSCG_FNLMr. 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.