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.