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Spring 2004
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Spring 2004
Leveling the Playing Field
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The work goes on inside an unmarked, nondescript building in West Los Angeles where machines hum as they process samples from athletes around the country. A technician in a white lab coat and gloves assigns codes to each of the containers delivered nearly every day to the lab. Specimens are prepared and placed on a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer. The machine separates and analyzes the samples and spits out graphs with spiky peaks and valleys that are the distinctive fingerprints of each compound that is found. The lab tests for more than 200 banned substances, including stimulants, diuretics and hormones. But perhaps the most notorious of the substances for which Catlin and his colleagues hunt are anabolic steroids.

Available legally by prescription for medical conditions that involve low levels of testosterone production, anabolic steroids have found favor among athletes who want a boost to build muscle mass and strength. However, they can cause serious physical and psychological problems, and are banned by the IOC, NCAA and NFL. Nevertheless, some athletes willingly risk sanctions and their health for the chance to break a world record or win a medal.

Shortly after the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Catlin's lab encountered an unusual urine sample that contained a previously unknown steroid. They traced it to a powerful substance that had been under clinical trial by a drug company decades earlier. The company had halted development due to the drug's toxic side effects.

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