Anti-Doping Doctor Leaves California Lab

Don Catlin, the head of a UCLA lab that helped to expose the Balco doping scandal, has stepped down. Catlin, considered the most prominent anti-doping drug tester in the world, will remain active in the field.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

As you heard, I asked Sheffield about the BALCO doping scandal. A lot of professional athletes would just as soon forget about that. But for one mild-mannered anti-doping scientist named Don Catlin, the BALCO story is a source of pride.

Catlin and his colleagues at the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory identified the previously undetectable steroid at the heart of the scandal. It was one of many triumphs for Catlin. He is considered the most prominent anti-doping drug tester in the world. And this month he decided to leave the lab.

But as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, athletes who use banned substances should not celebrate.

TOM GOLDMAN: Last week, the entrance to the lab Don Catlin has run for a quarter century was filled with signs of his imminent exit.

Without giving away too many trade secrets, what are in these boxes?

Dr. DON CATLIN (UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory): Oh, these are just plain boxes that I've accumulated over 30 years. There are papers, files, whatever.

GOLDMAN: Whatever included a folder labeled Gatlin. Justin Gatlin was the Olympic 100-meters champion banned last year after a positive drug test. Another folder was labeled EPO, the red blood cell boosting drug that's been abused by athletes.

The boxes were a history of the job Catlin's done well, but without much enjoyment.

Dr. CATLIN: No, I mean it's never fun to bust an athlete. That represents failure somewhere in the system. And you can only do that so much and for so long.

GOLDMAN: So earlier this month, 68-year-old Don Catlin called it good. But those boxes didn't have far to go. About a mile from the lab in West Los Angeles, Catlin has a new facility where he'll pursue his real love.

Dr. CATLIN: I want to go and do research.

GOLDMAN: Which he calls extraordinarily challenging and absolutely necessary in anti-doping.

Dr. CATLIN: We are in a high-tech field. And if you're not doing research, you die.

GOLDMAN: Behind Catlin's desk on a white drawing board the letters HGH were written in green felt pen and underlined. Human growth hormone is Catlin's number one challenge at his new anti-doping research institute. HGH is banned in sport but there's suspicion a lot of athletes use it since the major pro-leagues don't test for it.

Currently there's a blood test for HGH but the players' unions say it hasn't been scientifically validated. Plus they don't want their athletes getting stuck all the time. They'll wait for a less invasive urine test, thank you very much. Such a test is years away and very expensive to develop, which is just the kind of challenge Catlin welcomes. He's already working on the urine test.

Dr. CATLIN: No, everybody's saying I'm a bit crazy. But okay, I do have some ideas. I don't choose to discuss them. I've asked for a very, very modest budget.

GOLDMAN: Baseball put up less than $500,000 for the HGH project, which will require many millions. But Catlin says that's okay for now. He wants to go slowly and keep expectations low. If they're high, it's understandable. A few years ago, Catlin led a team that cracked the mystery of THG - that's the BALCO drug known as the clear, a so-called designer steroid created to avoid detection. In his soon-to-be empty office, a plastic molecular model of THG sat on top of a cupboard. It was the closest thing to a trophy in the office but, Catlin smiled, it's university property. It has to stay.

He's packed up everything else, including his belief that clean athletic competition is possible. It's a belief that's been challenged by all the positive doping tests at his lab.

Dr. CATLIN: You'll never get all the drugs out of it. The rewards are too huge. I - my hope is, and I think it's not unrealistic, that you should be able to watch a track and field final and be satisfied that nobody is doping.

GOLDMAN: Catlin says the old model of anti-doping is creaking and it's time to shift away from the cat-and-mouse, catch-the-athlete-and-punish-them culture. He wants to pursue an idea he spoke of years ago, where athletes volunteer to join clean sports programs and work with anti-doping officials instead of trying to hide from the likes of Don Catlin as they've done for so many years.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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