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Don Catlin says Sports Illustrated article mischaracterized him

  • By Steve Frothingham
  • Published Feb. 1, 2011
  • Updated Feb. 2, 2011 at 12:44 PM EDT

Don Catlin, former director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Lab and, briefly, the overseer of Lance Armstrong’s anti-doping program during his 2009 comeback, says a recent Sports Illustrated article on Armstrong contains innuendo and mischaracterizes elements of the story about him.

Catlin does not claim he was misquoted, nor does he dispute specific facts cited in the article. However, he suggests a quote from him was taken out of context from the minutes of a U.S. Olympic Committee meeting in 1999 or 2000. And more generally, a spokesman for Catlin told VeloNews the SI article “clearly attempts to imply impropriety” that he denies.

Selena Roberts, co-author of the article with David Epstein, said their work simply lays out the facts. “If Dr. Catlin has an issue with the way he is perceived, he needs to take it up with the people we quoted about him,” Roberts told VeloNews.

Related: Catlin’s complete response to the Sports Illustrated article.

The SI article makes no specific charges against Catlin. But soon after introducing him, it quotes two people who were skeptical that Catlin could remain objective in running the Armstrong program because of strong prior ties between the two. The first skeptic was Floyd Landis:

“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.”

From there, the article recounts several incidents that cast doubt on the integrity of the UCLA lab and Catlin as early as 1990.

Exum’s lawsuit

The article raised a lawsuit filed by former U.S. Olympic Committee doping control officer Wade Exum, who resigned in 2000. Exum, in a wrongful termination and racial discrimination lawsuit, charged that the USOC allowed athletes to compete despite knowledge that they had doped.

SI said that minutes from USOC committee meetings support Exum’s charges. In the minutes, Catlin is quoted apparently suggesting that the USOC not connect the results of testosterone tests done at his lab with the athletes who gave the samples. “Do it as a research experience,” Catlin is quoted as saying.

Catlin told SI he did not recall the comment, and in his response, said that he asked to see the full minutes of the meeting to put the comment in context, but that SI would not provide him with the minutes. He said that he has “formally requested a copy from the editors of SI through counsel and am awaiting a response.”

“It is impossible to comment on the context of a meeting after being read a few lines from minutes that are almost eleven years old.  I am confident that if provided with the context I could easily explain any statements in the minutes and their relevance to the advancement of the anti-doping system in general as that has always been my creed.”

Sports Illustrated‘s Roberts said that co-author Epstein read parts of the minutes to Catlin so that he knew the context of the remark. She said she does not share article research materials with sources and, in any case, Catlin should have access to the minutes from the USOC.

In his response, Catlin noted (as did the SI article) that Exum’s case was dismissed for lack of evidence. He also noted that between 1992 and 2000 his lab reported more than 25 urine samples with abnormal testosterone ratios to the USOC.

“As the lab director, reporting to the USOC fulfilled my obligations. I had no authority or ability to take further action against the athlete.”

Roberts said in fact “the lab in general failed to detect thousands of tests with high testosterone-epitestosterone ratios.” She said the lab and the USOC “fostered a culture that enabled and perhaps encouraged doping.”

The USA Cycling request

SI also focused on a May 1999 USA Cycling request to Catlin’s lab for past test results for a cyclist identified only by code numbers. SI cited a letter that the magazine said is Catlin’s response the request. The letter back to USAC said that data from some early samples from the athlete could not be recovered, but that later samples from the athlete in question showed abnormally high testosterone-epitestosterone ratios on initial tests. However, the levels could not be confirmed with subsequent tests, as required. An unidentified source told SI that the samples came from Lance Armstrong. Roberts declined to say any more about the source except that all sources are vetted. “We do our due diligence,” she said.

Referring to one sample’s extremely high ratio, Breidbach is quoted saying “if you can’t confirm (that), something is very wrong with your screening test.”

In the SI article, Catlin is described as “admitting” that the abnormal testosterone ratios were disturbing and that it was “very strange” that the abnormal results could not be duplicated on subsequent tests.

All this could imply that Catlin’s lab was unable to confirm the positive testosterone tests (and to find the data from the early tests) because of incompetence or a conspiracy to protect the athlete in question, allegedly Armstrong.

Catlin says he did not recall the request for samples or his response, saying that he had “numerous such requests (for old data) in the course of my career.” He said he has asked SI to see the letter, but SI has not provided it. He said because of a coding system, the lab had no way of knowing the name of the athlete. In any case, Catlin noted that in May 1999, Armstrong had yet to win his first Tour de France and Catlin didn’t know who he was.

“When the laboratory would have originally received the samples in question, identified only by a number, not only did no lab employee, including myself, know the name of the athlete, but nobody knew whether the athlete had ever been tested before or would ever be tested again.  All three were reported long before Armstrong won his first Tour de France and became famous; I had no idea who he was at the time.  In a response letter of the sort described from June 4, 1999, I would merely be describing results that had been obtained and reported independently from one another several years earlier.”

Explaining the lost early sample data, Catlin said prior to 2003, lab data was stored on magnetic media that sometimes deteriorated. He said that the USOC did not require the lab to maintain data on negative samples, but that his lab generally did, anyway.

Roberts questions how Catlin could not have known who Armstrong was before 1999. During that decade Armstrong was on three Olympic teams, won a world road championship and was called “the next LeMond” in 1993 or earlier. Although Catlin did not meet Armstrong in person until 2008, Catlin told Sports Illustrated that he did have earlier contact with Bill Stapleton, Armstrong’s agent and a former USOC executive.

As for the letter, Roberts said it was read “verbatim” to Catlin over the phone and that, since he wrote and signed it, he should have it in his files. “Maybe he has an issue with his own bookkeeping,” she said.

Armstrong’s lawyer pays a visit

The SI article recounted a visit by one of Armstrong’s lawyers to Catlin’s lab in 2005, when Armstrong was reacting to a now-famous L’Equipe article about samples from the 1999 Tour de France.

Breidbach said that Catlin asked him to show the man around the lab, assuming he was from U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. He said during the tour he and the lawyer discussed EPO testing, and that he did not learn until weeks later that the lawyer worked for Armstrong. “It became clear to me that Catlin was trying to make a case for Armstrong,” he told SI.

Catlin’s response is that Breidbach was told the lawyer worked for Armstrong, and that the lab frequently conducted tours for lawyers, who are allowed to witness B-sample testing for their clients. He also says that he and other employees were not allowed to discuss specific cases with visitors and says that if Breidbach did, he was breaking the rules. In short, Catlin’s response to this section in the SI article is: so what?

“It was hardly the first time an attorney had been educated on these matters.”

Roberts says that the appearance seemed to be more than a tour, but rather a consultation between Catlin and Armstrong’s team on how to react to the L’Equipe report. Such a consultation would at least create the perception of a conflict of interest for Catlin, who was running a lab that had tested Armstrong’s samples for the USOC.

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