Anti-doping pioneer Don Catlin spent a quarter century trying to catch athletes using performance-enhancing drugs, snaring many of the world's biggest cheaters — but he never caught Lance Armstrong.
Catlin figures he must have analyzed about 50 of Armstrong's urine samples at his UCLA lab over the years, and the seven-time Tour de France winner, the most scrutinized athlete on Earth, always turned up clean.
"That’s fairly disturbing," Catlin said a couple of days before Armstrong’s doping confession was to air on prime-time television. "We thought we had a good program."
Going after dopers is an exercise in endless frustration, because unscrupulous athletes will always find new drugs and new methods to beat tests, and sports organizations have too much to lose by allowing stringent inspections. That is why Catlin, a chemist, has moved beyond the endless game of cat-and-mouse, and thinks the rest of the world should, too.
Testing holds a necessary place in anti-doping efforts, he says, but science alone can’t solve sports' problems. The chase will never be won — and sports will never really be cleansed — unless the focus shifts toward a voluntary system that rewards honest athletes while pressuring the dirty ones to change their ways.
Kind of like peer pressure for jocks.
"That’s what it’s been criticized for, and to that I say, 'Nothing much works these days,'" Catlin said.
Case in point is Armstrong, who fooled authorities for a decade before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency released a mountain of evidence against him last year and accused him of running "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen." A month earlier, his former U.S. Postal Service teammate, Tyler Hamilton, published a book about how they got away with it.
"Very scary stuff," Catlin said.
Catlin got out of the testing business six years ago, ending a 25-year career at UCLA’s Olympic Analytical Lab, which he built into one of the world’s premier testing facilities. The lab broke open the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, which was linked to many elite athletes, including track star Marion Jones and San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, by discovering the designer steroid THG. Catlin later developed a test that was used to catch Olympic gold medal sprinter Justin Gatlin with unnatural levels of testosterone.
His lab also specialized in detecting the blood-oxygen booster EPO, which Armstrong is accused of using.
Catlin left his lab in 2007 to develop the nonprofit Anti-Doping Research Institute in Los Angeles.
"The cause is good, but after 25 years you know everything about the field, and you don’t see it going away," Catlin said. "You see doping staying forever and that’s frustrating. You try to figure out, as I’m doing now, better approaches to take the problem from very different ways."
University of Texas doping historian John Hoberman doesn’t know Catlin, but, he, too, believes that the only way to save sport from doping is to reform its culture. He advocates for a refocusing on "the human chemistry" of the scourge.
The most formidable obstacle to clean competition, Hoberman says, is a kind of institutional corruption in which members of groups that profit from the "sports entertainment industry" are implicitly or explicitly allowing doping to happen. To these organizations, the "appearance of compliance" with World Anti-Doping Agency codes is enough.
"The other aspect of this is the many national and international sports officials who should be good guys, and aren’t," Hoberman said.
That is why Hoberman hopes that Armstrong — who arguably knows more about doping than any of his accusers — will implicate top cycling officials in his confession. That could help spark an unprecedented reform effort.
“If you can get everything out of him, you can make extraordinary inroads in improving the culture,” Hoberman said.
But even with Armstrong’s confession, neither Hoberman nor Catlin is idealistic enough to believe that doping is ever going to end.
"This is not the last they’re going to see of (someone like) Armstrong," Catlin said. "Look at his story and ask: Could this (still) be going on today? The answer is yes."