Why You Shouldn't Believe Marion Jones: Vol. 27

Story by Eric.

(This is the 27th part of a long series titled, "Why You Shouldn't Believe Marion Jones". This series depicts the life and times of a (former) woman sprinter whose lies and cover-ups about doping in sport continue even through this day.)

I concluded the last entry with the fact that the UCLA laboratory, which had been run for 25 years by founder and Chairman of the Medical and Science Committee for the IOC Medical Commission, Dr. Don Catlin, and staffed with more than 50 researchers and technicians, including six Ph.D.’s – had never had a false-positive reading until Marion Jones's "B"-sample was re-tested in September, 2006.

Not all was lost in the process of testing and revealing both sample analysis, nor in the leaking of the initial sample, however.

Though USADA and WADA were exposed at some level – with their credibility being called into question after that test, more focus and attention was being placed on the testing procedures, and all principles involved in the laboratory test from the side not representing Marion Jones were each confident in the accuracy and thoroughness of the testing procedures and results.

WADA, following the resulting “B”-sample exoneration, responded accordingly to the defence of the EPO detection method:

2. The detection method for EPO is valid and reliable. It has undergone an extensive scientific validation process and has been used successfully for many years by many anti-doping laboratories around the world. It is a well-established procedure widely accepted by the scientific community, as demonstrated by publication in a number of international scientific journals. Further, in all its decisions relating to EPO, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has supported the validity of the EPO detection method. At its first meeting of September 26-27, 2005, the WADA Laboratory Committee reiterated its strong support to the method when properly applied. [1]

Travis Tygart, USADA’s Senior Managing Director and former General Counsel who took the helm over as USADA chief executive in the autumn of 2007 – and, who has arbitrated over thirty cases before the AAA or CAS including the cases of Tim Montgomery, Michelle Collins and Chryste Gaines, was asked by Velonews about whether or not USADA funding (now revamped to $3.000.000 annually under a new deal announced with USOC 2007-July-1) was dependent upon having a track record of successful convictions.

“Absolutely not. I have heard this before and it really is an illogical claim. Quite simply, USADA's funding is dependent only on there being a need for USADA. As long as there is a doping problem in sport, USADA will have funding. The day that there is not a doping problem in American sport will be a happy day for everyone, especially the people involved with USADA. The USADA board and staff would rather see a person who actually doped walk free than sanction someone who did not dope.

“Our credibility and integrity would be permanently ruined if we only cared about winning cases. Again, an accurate reflection of our track record shows that we simply follow the evidence, do the right thing in every case and keep our mouths shut. Sometimes we may initially look bad in the press since we can not speak unless permitted by the athlete. In those situations, all we ask is that the public keep an open mind and reserve judgment until we have been given a chance to present the accurate story based on the facts and evidence.” [2]

The Los Angeles Times’ Michael A. Hiltzik wrote a compelling piece [3] on the drugs testing system and athletes who are being presumed guilty, citing that the current (2007) WADA arbitration system was flawed and leads toward bias to the accusers. He stated that accidental and trivial cases result in harsh penalties. Hiltzik brings up several arguments which could have been seen as favourable to presumed guilt. Several key points brought up by the author:
  • Athletes are presumed guilty and denied routine access to lab data potentially relevant to their defence.
  • Trivial and accidental violations draw penalties similar to those for intentional use of illicit performance-enhancing substances.
  • Anti-doping authorities or sports federations have leaked details of cases against athletes or made public assertions of their guilt before tests were confirmed or appeals resolved.
  • The presumption shifts the burden to the athlete to prove that the lab’s work fell short of scientific standards and that its failures affected the outcome. The effect is to render the athlete guilty unless proved innocent. [4]
According to the Chicago Tribune, non-confirming “B” tests are rare in doping cases; however they occur more frequently in those involving EPO, due to the results reading leaving significant room for interpretation. [5]

The New York Times reported that WADA conducted 183.000 drugs tests in 2006, with four “B”-sample findings not confirming those of the 3.909 adverse analytical “A”-sample findings. [6]

In two of the three “B”-sample cases which failed to concur with the “A”-sample findings, The New York Times writes, the failed “B”-sample confirmations involved urine samples which had naturally degraded, making it difficult – or impossible – to determine if EPO had been present.

The third analysis, wrote The New York Times – citing Dr. Oliver Rabin, WADA science director, “could have been related to the conditions of conservation of the sample,” where substances could have broken down had the sample not been frozen in a standard period of time.

None of these instances is believed to have occurred at the UCLA laboratory. Drug-testing laboratories had their early weaknesses, leading Dr. Catlin to state in September 1986 that one effective safeguard for laboratories to avoiding slip ups in procedure would be, “if the laboratory director is willing to submit an unlabeled sample of his own urine to his own laboratory and then to live or die by the results.”

The UCLA Laboratory set itself apart from shoddy laboratories which varied tremendously in quality within the same laboratory – even on a day-to-day basis, because the tests required skill in interpretation, and the reliability of the results depended on who performed the test. [7]

Sports Illustrated, in covering this turn of events for Marion Jones – and plotting her return to 2006 competition at the World Cup in Athens (having qualified after winning the USATF national 100m title in June), stated that Swede Arne Ljungqvist, the chairman of the International Olympic Committee medical commission and a member of the World Anti-Doping Association executive committee, defended the EPO testing system:

“The science of the method as such has been validated and confirmed as absolutely safe and OK, but it's not unusual in the life of a laboratory that incidents may occur,” he said. “The test does have some pitfalls as respect to the interpretation.”

It remains unclear which test -- the "A" or "B" -- ultimately was accurate.

“We certainly know there are situations where the A and B may not necessarily look the same,” Ljungqvist said. “One doesn't know if the A is the correct analysis and the B is incorrect, or vice versa. That's the open question.”

Marion Jones's negative "B" sample has done nothing to shake USADA's faith in the testing process, general counsel Travis Tygart said.

“We have full confidence in the EPO test, we stay abreast or ahead of the science involved, and we'll continue using it going forward,” he said. [8]

Jacobs, one of Marion Jones’s attorneys, said the decision to report her “A” sample as positive was a “close call.” What else would you expect from a team especially adept at reducing itself to the defensive position of merely picking at the USADA’s case against Marion Jones with a “you can't prove it” line of attack?

The foregone inferred conclusion was to have been that the re-tested particles – which are simply a stored sample of the original “A”-sample – would produce a “B”-sample result which would not counter the meticulously processed activity test results identified in the first test, and alternately identified and corroborated by an independent laboratory in accordance with WADA protocol.

History was to have spoken of – and for – itself.

It didn’t – despite the accolades the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory carried.

Ultimately, Dr. Catlin announced his resignation from the helm of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory on 2007-March-13 in what he described as an opportunity to turn to research.

According to Dr. Catlin, performance-enhancing drug use increased – not decreased – following the BALCO saga.

“If you’re a pro athlete and you read all about it and how extensive it is, even if you’re clean, you think: ‘Gee, I’ve got to get with it.’ I have been quite surprised to see how extensive it is, even me, with the jaded eye with which I look at sports. There’s a lot more than I ever thought.” [9]

According to AFP reports, Dr. Catlin plans to develop new and better tests for human growth hormone and erythropoietin (EPO) at the new Anti-Doping Research Institute in Los Angeles while the UCLA lab continues its work under a new director.

“I'm not walking out on the system,” Catlin said. “The work will go on.” [10]

Marion Jones’s doping results were scrutinised by the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory which conducted the “A”-sample and “B”-sample tests, and it apparently did not rule out sample deterioration from the positive-to-negative osmosis between tests. The UCLA Laboratory, which in 2005 was funded $175.000 under a grant titled a General Method Development Grant to Support Doping Control from USADA [11], is a WADA-accredited centre which complies with strict quality demands to ensure in its testing processes are able to conform to the following criteria – as testified in an anti-doping hearing [12]:
  • That each aspect of the sample collection and processing is conducted appropriately and without error.
  • That chain of custody from the time of collection and processing at the collection site to the receipt of the lab is conducted appropriately and without error.
  • That the lab’s chain of custody for specimens is conducted appropriately and without error.
  • That the lab’s procedure for the detection or r-EPO is performed accurately and without error.
  • That the electropherograms produced in relation to collected urine samples are accurate and without error.
Phillip Hersh – the Chicago Tribune columnist and reporter who distributed the information about the leaked test result – had requested his own audience to not solely base the accuracy of his Marion Jones-tests-positive information on the hearsay of an informant. Hersh had, through his own research, inferred that Marion Jones “B”-sample test would unlikely be diametrically opposed to the initial “A”-sample.

Excerpted from a follow-up story on the Chicago Tribune’s initial divulgence [13]:

Was Jones targeted for EPO testing, done on only 2.5 percent of the urine samples tested by the UCLA lab in an average year? USADA generally requests samples be specifically tested for EPO.

“USADA had issues with [Jones] going back to 2000,” Richard Pound, the World Anti-Doping Agency chairman, said Saturday by telephone. “Wherever there is smoke, you do extra testing. This may have been a targeted test.”

Testing urine samples for EPO has been controversial and has led to the greatest number of "A" positives not being confirmed by the "B" sample, for purely scientific as well as procedural reasons.

To improve the reliability of the urine-based EPO test, first used at the Olympics in 2000, WADA has insisted a second laboratory review the data that the testing lab reported as showing a positive result. That was done in Jones' case. [14]

WADA had apparently – in a premeditated attempt to not falsely accuse Marion Jones – ordered a credible check and balance laboratory provide authoritative analysis on the findings uncovered by the first certified testing team – the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory – which independently corroborated the declared evidence by the first team of experts – a team which has never proclaimed an initial drugs screening test of any kind a false “positive”.

There is not a single person within USADA, according to counsel Tygart – who also oversaw the prosecution of alleged doping offenses in arbitration before the American Arbitration Association (AAA) and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) – who would compromise USADA’s or their own personal integrity for any case.

Dr. Catlin, satisfied with the test, itself, has been known to permit “positive” test readings unable to withstand absolute court pressure, to slide.

In a drug test, an athlete's urine is broken down by a mass spectrometer, which shows a range of various detectable elements. Every drug has a signature reading, but the results aren't always clear. Sometimes an athlete is right on that line between being acquitted or banned for life, and it's up to a scientist to determine whether it's a positive. As Don Catlin, the head of the UCLA lab that analyzed Jones' test, said during a visit to his lab earlier this year, they don't call a test positive when they think the athlete is dirty, they call it positive when they believe they can defend it in court. [15]

The Marion Jones “A”-sample was thought to have withstood that pressure, though differing scientists introduced in the loop by Marion Jones’s defence attorney stated the results were open to interpretation. Dr. Catlin had earlier stated that his site saw a great deal of false-negatives pass through the centre, and the centre had not been quick to call borderline cases positive.

Don Catlin's role as the head of the drug testing laboratory at U.C.L.A., the only American site accredited by the World Anti-Doping Association, made him an authority on doping by athletes. Catlin said his lab saw many EPO urine tests that indicated illegal doping by an athlete. He passed most of them, however, because the evidence was not, in his estimation, overwhelming.

“I don't call them because I know I will be faced with a phalanx of scientists and experts who are there to say I'm wrong," he said. “The false negative rate is very high.” [16]

The “B”-sample testing procedures, themselves, had been acknowledged as being accurate and according to protocol reviewed by Marion Jones team – led by Dr. Allen W. Murray, Ph.D., a former Professor Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology Harvard University Cambridge, MA, and now a scientist in San Diego.

The UCLA laboratory is an accredited laboratory which utilised a test based on appropriate scientific principles to demonstrate the existence of a prohibited drug, and concluded that the corresponding number which matched Marion Jones’s name contained prohibited levels of EPO.

The results, however, had been debated by Marion Jones’s legal team as being “right on the threshold” of a positive result based on the old criteria for what should be considered a positive (criteria which were apparently relaxed just over a year ago according to Jacobs) – that is to say speculative at best. One other newspaper account cites Murray as stating the “A”-sample adverse finding was “a close call.”

Dr. Catlin disagreed with the speculation his team was incompetent.

The director of the Los Angeles lab, Don Catlin, declined during a phone interview to discuss the reason for the discrepancy in Jones's results, but he said: “I have full confidence in the test. I've been doing the test for many years; I've probably done it 1,000 times. I've studied it. I've written papers about it. I've gone to court to defend our results. . . . I like the test.” [17]


[1] WADA, “EPO Q/A”
[2] Velonews, “USADA’s Lawyer: A conversation with Travis Tygart”, 2007-05-03
[3] Los Angeles Times, “Athletes see doping case appeals as futile exercise”, 2006-12-11
[4] USADA lost its first arbitration case in seven years when LaTasha Jenkins’s drug suspension for nandrolone was overturned by arbitrators on 2007-12-14.
[5] Chicago Tribune, “‘Ecstatic' Jones cleared of doping charges”, 2006-09-07
[6] The New York Times, “In Wake of Jones’ Result, Testing Will Be Analyzed”, 2006-09-08
[7] The New York Times, “Drug Tests Gain Precision, But Can Be Inaccurate”, 1986-09-16
[8] Sports Illustrated, “Sprinter Jones plots return to next week's World Cup”, 2006-09-08
[9] The New York Times, “Bonds Avoids Indictment, but Inquiry Will Go On”, 2006-07-21
[1o] AFP, “US anti-doping pioneer Catlin to quit testing field: report”, 2007-03-13
[11] 2005 USADA Annual Report, Section: “Research Grants and Contracts”
[12] USADA vs. Adham Sbeih, AAA No. 30 190 001100 03
[13] Chicago Tribune “Positive drug test for Jones”, 2006-08-20
[14] Chicago Tribune “Well-crafted image starts to crumble”, 2006-08-20
[15] The Sun Herald, “Tests don’t wash away dirt in Marion Jones case”, 2006-09-13
[16] The New York Times, “Drug Scandal Looms Over Wide-Open Tour’s Start”, 2006-06-30
[17] Washington Post, “Inquiry Into Jones's Test Results”, 2006-09-08

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