Book Review: The Night Olympic Team

FasterSkierMarch 16, 2010
The Night Olympic Dream

The first positive test of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics has emerged, with Polish cross-country skier Kornelia Marek anxiously awaiting the results of her B sample test March 12 in Richmond, B.C., after her A sample indicated EPO use. That mars the picture of a doping-free Games that many had trumpeted, when more than 2,000 drug tests administered failed to result in an athlete being disqualified during the 16 days of competition – though 30 athletes were barred from coming at all due to positive tests.

If Marek’s B sample also yields a positive result, the 25-year-old teammate of Justyna Kowalczyk faces a two-year ban and will be denied an opportunity to improve on her Olympic best of 11th in an individual competition and sixth in the women’s relay at the 2014 Sochi Games.

So just how do scientists like the ones who will be examining Marek’s B sample take those test tubes and figure out whether an athlete has used a banned substance?

For those curious about what exactly goes on behind the scenes, and what happens when scientists detect a new substance that they believe to be performance-enhancing, a recent book called “The Night Olympic Team” offers a fascinating look.

The story is one FasterSkier’s readers will be familiar with: the doping downfall of Johann Muehlegg, Larissa Lazutina, and Olga Danilova at the 2002 Games, which eventually resulted in Beckie Scott being awarded the Olympic gold medal that should have been hers all along.

But the details of how those positive results came to be will likely be unfamiliar to most readers. Written by Dr. Caroline Hatton, the long-time lieutenant of world-renowned antidoping expert Dr. Don Catlin, “The Night Olympic Team” was published in 2008 with a young audience in mind. But Hatton’s rare perspective and thorough explanation of the events that transpired has also captivated the interest of many adults.

What happened behind the scenes

In 56 pages with plenty of photos and sidebars on the finer points of examining urine and the alphabet soup of banned substances that may be found therein, Hatton explains how she and the rest of Catlin’s team worked around the clock to identify an illegal drug in the three Nordic skiers’ samples.

In the run-up to the Salt Lake Games, they had heard of a new blood-boosting drug called Aranesp (also known as NESP – for “novel erythropoietic stimulating protein” – or darbepoetin alfa), but there wasn’t yet a test for it. And they knew the athletes knew that.

But during the Games, they discovered through their midnight sleuthing that the EPO test then in use worked for NESP, too. Catlin consulted numerous colleagues, including Hatton – in the quiet of the Utah wilderness where their conversations were sure not to be overheard – about whether it was right to declare a positive test result for these three athletes despite having so little data.

He decided to move ahead, but he needed supporting evidence – and fast. Two days before Sunday’s closing ceremonies, Catlin tracked down Aranesp’s creator in Louisiana, got him to examine their testing results, and write a letter of support – which had to be OK-ed by his company’s lawyers. Then he had to get Jacques Rogge to sign off.

Rogge: ‘I was told there were some big nations involved’

As Rogge told Hatton in an interview after the Games, “I was told that some big nations were involved and it would be a noisy issue. I said, ‘I don’t care. This is something that we have to pursue.’ And that’s what I did.”

The IOC held a closed hearing Saturday night, and by Sunday afternoon – just hours before the closing ceremonies – CNN reported that some Olympic athletes had tested positive for NESP. And thus began a long process of court proceedings that ultimately resulted in Catlin’s results being upheld, the trio of skiers losing all eight medals they’d won at the 2002 Games, and Beckie Scott getting her gold.

Catlin and Hatton’s pioneering work

Catlin has been at this since 1982, when he read everything in the UCLA library about antidoping in no time flat because there was almost nothing to read.

He went on to develop and lead the UCLA antidoping lab – the largest in the world – for a quarter century, much of the time with Hatton at his side. He’s now working full-time at his own institute, Anti-Doping Research, an unmarked building in the back lot behind Barry’s Plumbing in Los Angeles, where I spent the better part of a day with him ahead of the Beijing Games talking about his work as a pioneer in antidoping – and why he thinks testing isn’t the ultimate answer.

Catlin brought Hatton in to join us – and it was quickly clear why. Her sharp mind and deep insight added much to our wide-ranging conversation, often piping up to fill in missing facts or correct his fuzzy dates – but always bringing a rich picture of their work together to root out doping in sport.

And that is exactly what she has done in “The Night Olympic Team.”


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