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The lab run by famed anti-doping expert Donald Catlin doesn't measure up to CSI images of forensic facilities. The only hint of the work that goes on inside this nondescript two-story brown building off Grand View Boulevard on the West Side of Los Angeles is a sign on a windowsill next to a brown metal door: ANTI-DOPING RESEARCH.
When Armstrong announced on Sept. 24, 2008, that he was returning to cycling after more than three years away, he added a twist: His Astana team had hired Catlin, who had run the U.S. Olympic anti-doping lab at UCLA for 25 years, to test his blood and urine samples and post the results online. "This will be the most advanced anti-doping program in the world," said Armstrong. "I'm not going to tell you how clean I am, and I'm not going to insinuate how dirty the others are.... Don Catlin can tell you if I'm clean or not."
The move was praised by cycling officials and the media for directly addressing rumors and allegations, particularly in the European press, that Armstrong had achieved his success with the help of PEDs. (Astana was not above suspicion either. At the end of 2007 it had replaced its management team after its lead rider, Alexander Vinokourov, was banned for a year for blood doping—the practice of withdrawing and later reinjecting his own blood to increase his volume of oxygen-carrying red cells.) But some in cycling, and even in Catlin's lab, questioned whether the joint operation might be more about public relations than about meticulous testing. "When I saw them together, it didn't surprise me," says Landis. "[Lance] knows Catlin well." Andreas Breidbach, who was head of the lab's EPO testing group from 2003 to '06, had a similar reaction. "Oh, great, Lance is being tested by his greatest admirer," Breidbach recalls thinking, "and to the outside world it looks convincing."
Catlin says he didn't meet Armstrong face-to-face until 2008, but he says he did field calls over the years from Bill Stapleton, a USOC executive from 1997 to 2004 and Armstrong's longtime agent. "He would call with questions having to do with testing," says Catlin. "It wasn't Lance calling; it was Bill."
Catlin, now 72, has been a member of the International Olympic Committee's medical commission since 1988. The UCLA lab was the official testing facility for the 1984 Los Angeles Games and the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, and it has performed in- and out-of-competition testing for U.S. national-team athletes since 1982. Catlin has been heralded for discovering methods to detect doping, such as the test to determine the difference between synthetic and natural testosterone. He is also credited with having identified the illicit performance enhancer THG produced by the infamous BALCO lab in Burlingame, Calif. And for a decade Catlin has served as an expert in cases brought by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and as a witness in federal investigations such as the BALCO case, which was spearheaded by Novitzky.
Catlin left the Olympic lab at UCLA in 2007, after forming two companies: a for-profit consulting and testing business called Anti-Doping Science, and the nonprofit Anti-Doping Research (ADR), which explores the science of doping. According to tax records for 2007 and '08, Major League Baseball gave Catlin's ADR a $287,335 grant for the primary purpose of developing a urine test for human growth hormone (HGH). The lab has not produced the test, but Don Catlin's son Oliver, the CFO of ADR, says the grant was insufficient to solve such a difficult doping problem. The NFL, which gave ADR grants of as much as $200,000 per year for the same reason as baseball did, recently ended their relationship a year early, according to NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, because Catlin's work had reached what Aiello calls a "dead end."
Catlin's UCLA lab did the testing for the U.S. Olympic Committee during the nine years that Wade Exum was the organization's doping control director. Exum resigned in June 2000 in protest against what he alleged was the USOC's practice of letting positive drug tests slide. In a subsequent lawsuit claiming that he had been the victim of wrongful termination and racial discrimination, Exum said that 19 U.S. Olympic medalists from 1984 to 2000 had been allowed to compete in the Games despite having failed drug tests. "The welfare of the athlete was not first," says Exum, now a psychiatrist in Nevada. (The USOC denied Exum's allegation about the 19 athletes; Exum's lawsuit was dismissed for lack of evidence.)
Exum's allegations appear to be supported by minutes of USOC anti-doping committee meetings from 1999 and 2000, recently reviewed by SI. In the minutes, officials discuss how to informally test athletes for marijuana and performance-enhancing drugs—not to sanction them but to help them to avoid testing positive at the Olympics. In 2000, according to the minutes, a debate arose within the committee over whether to use Catlin's testosterone testing method (CIR) before the Sydney Games. Baaron Pittenger, the committee chair, said, "We can handle CIR in the same way we're handling marijuana in terms of notifying the athletes." In reply, Catlin said, "Just don't connect the CIR result to the athlete. Do it as a research experience." (Catlin says he doesn't recall that discussion and adds, "I was always fighting to expose the USOC and all its diddling around with everything.")
Lance Armstrong entered the Olympic world around 1990, at age 19, after a transition from competing in the triathlon. Two of his teammates on the 1990 U.S. junior team, Greg Strock and Erich Kaiter, claimed in a suit against USA Cycling in 2000 that coaches administered steroids to them in 1990, damaging their immune systems and cutting short their careers, according to documents from the suit. Neither Strock nor Kaiter ever tested positive. The suit was settled in November 2006; USA Cycling paid each rider $250,000.
From 1990 to 2000, Armstrong was tested more than two dozen times by Catlin's UCLA lab, according to Catlin's estimate. In May 1999, USA Cycling sent a formal request to Catlin for past test results—specifically, testosterone-epitestosterone ratios—for a cyclist identified only by his drug-testing code numbers. A source with knowledge of the request says that the cyclist was Lance Armstrong. In a letter dated June 4, 1999, Catlin responded that the lab couldn't recover a total of five of the cyclist's test results from 1990, 1992 and 1993, adding, "The likelihood that we will be able to recover these old files is low." The letter went on to detail the cyclist's testosterone-epitestosterone results from 1991 to 1998, with one missing season: 1997, the only year during that span in which Armstrong didn't compete. Three results stand out: a 9.0-to-1 ratio from a sample collected on June 23, 1993; a 7.6-to-1 from July 7, 1994; and a 6.5-to-1 from June 4, 1996. Most people have a ratio of 1-to-1. Prior to 2005, any ratio above 6.0-to-1 was considered abnormally high and evidence of doping; in 2005 that ratio was lowered to 4.0-to-1.