Don Catlin, founder of modern anti-doping testing, dies at 85

By Les Carpenter, for The Washington Post

Before Barry Bonds, before Russia at the Sochi Olympics, before the past four decades of sports doping scandals and allegations, there was Don Catlin in his UCLA laboratory. Until Catlin opened the United States’ first sports anti-doping lab in 1982, “bigger, faster, stronger” was something that came from a bottle. Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs were flooding sports, and there wasn’t much of a way to stop them.

Catlin’s lab became the testing center for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and eventually performed testing for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NCAA and many others. It also became the place where codes were cracked on some of the most complicated and undetectable drugs.

Catlin died of a stroke Jan. 16 in Los Angeles after a long battle with dementia. He was 85. His son Oliver, who followed his father into anti-doping research, said he and his family have struggled to announce the news. How do you sum up a life that dramatically changed sports in a way most can’t see?

In a telephone interview from California, Oliver Catlin wondered if the 100 million people who will watch Sunday’s Super Bowl grasp the impact Don Catlin had with the testing program he helped run for the NFL.

“Will they understand it from the perspective that the reason we don’t have mutants and players dropping dead five minutes after stepping off the field is that we found a system to find the drugs players were taking and stop them?” he asked.

Don Catlin didn’t set out to live in a lab. He was a medical doctor assigned by the military during the Vietnam War to see if soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital were using illegal drugs. The military used Catlin’s work to punish the soldiers, which angered him, his son said. He didn’t want the soldiers to be disciplined; he wanted them to get help.

Ultimately, that led him to sports. The deaths of some high-profile athletes triggered his interest in anti-doping just as the extent of East Germany’s doping program was being discovered. When Catlin finally left the UCLA lab in 2007, it had become a primary testing facility for several sports and one of the top places for anti-doping study.

“He was the pioneer of anti-doping, and I think having someone with his stature and academic background with a lab at one of the finest universities of the world, UCLA, brought credibility to the scientific side” of anti-doping, said Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

Tygart said Catlin’s work went beyond giving sports leagues and federations the cover of having an anti-doping program they might not seriously police and forced those organizations “to do it the right way.”

In the early 2000s, USADA took a used syringe containing traces of a mysterious substance to Catlin’s lab. Catlin was able to discern it was a new chemical compound called tetrahydrogestrinone — THG as it came to be known. Investigators were able to trace the drug’s evolution to a northern California facility called the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, which had ties to several athletes including Bonds, baseball star Jason Giambi and sprinter Marion Jones.

Bonds and Jones have denied using PEDs from BALCO, but the discovery and resulting scandal awakened many to a sports world in which athletes had graduated from the clunky steroids of the 1980s to more sophisticated drugs that were harder to detect yet just as dangerous to their health.

Catlin was more interested in athlete safety and preserving fair competition than in exposing cheaters. Those pursuits didn’t always align with the business plans of sports leagues and organizations, which often have viewed testing as a necessary annoyance and have seemed more concerned with appearances.

The longer Catlin worked in anti-doping, the more he found himself frustrated by politics. He often complained to people that many of the leagues and organizations that used his lab (sending as many as 40,000 samples to UCLA by the end of his time there) had self-interests that had little to do with the athletes he wanted to help.

As Oliver Catlin has tried to crystallize his father’s legacy while still operating the private testing and certification lab the two of them ran for the past several years, he sees as many battles with the sports establishment as he does anti-doping breakthroughs. Don Catlin, he realized, had the power to challenge those leagues and organizations, but he wonders if those who do anti-doping now will have that same authority.

“He stepped out of the boundaries constantly to say what needed to be said,” Oliver Catlin said. “My dad has actually saved the lives of Olympic athletes who would have gone down [the doping] path.”

Last week, Oliver Catlin read the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s final report on the case of Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, who was 15 when she tested positive for trimetazidine, a heart medicine that has been banned as a PED. What shocked him was not Valieva’s defense that she must have been exposed to her grandfather’s heart medicine accidentally but rather that Valieva admitted to taking another heart drug, hypoxen, which is not banned but long has been watched by anti-doping experts.

“It’s the perfect example of why we run the [anti-doping] system,” he said. “It’s not only to stop the cheating but is also to stop the overloading of athletes with these drugs.”