As the Olympic Games in London approach, should we expect them to be free of performance-enhancing drugs?
No, says Victor Conte, the man behind the infamous BALCO steroids scandal, who swears he now crusades to keep drugs out of sports.
Conte, now training and advising a few Olympians, says he believes the Olympics anti-drug system is seriously flawed. High-ranking officials have a vested interest in not cleaning up the Olympics, he says, and while athletes can't use the high-octane stuff they did in the pre-testing days, many are still cheating.
At his offices in San Carlos, Calif., where he runs Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning (SNAC), the walls are covered with photos and posters of famous clients. Many of them are athletes he aided with his legitimate expertise; some are athletes he juiced to the gills.
There is a poster of Marion Jones at the 2000 Olympics, winning a sprint by a car length, earning one of five medals she later forfeited because she was on steroids by Conte.
"Welcome to the Hall of Fame, or Hall of Shame, depending on your viewpoint," Conte says.
If there is a Cheater's Hall of Fame, Conte's in it. So who better to give us the inside dope (so to speak) on the upcoming Olympics?
Since his arrest and prison stretch in 2005, Conte has tried with varying success to work with and advise anti-doping agencies. He says that the drug cops are gaining ground on the robbers, but that cheating continues, thanks to loopholes, better short-term drugs and deliberately lax enforcement.
"When you see this kind of stuff," Conte says, in regard to officials hiding positive drug tests, and ignoring expert advice on PED detection, "and everybody's in on it, it makes it easy to make bad decisions, for the athletes as well as their support teams. So is it better today than it was back then? Yes, it is improving. But do I believe that the overwhelming majority are using stuff? And is it still relatively easy to beat the testing?" A vigorous nod of Conte's head came with each question.
What kind of cheating goes on now in Olympic sports?
"I don't believe they're using designer steroids these days," says Conte, meaning undetectable. "I believe they're using fast-acting testosterone."
He says a rule change in drug testing created a loophole "you can drive a Mack Truck through."
"You can micro-dose, you can use fast-acting creams and gels and patches," he says. "I believe this is what's going on in major-league baseball, for instance."
If there is so much doping, I ask, why are many performance levels down? As Conte himself points out, women's sprint records from the '70s and '80s are beyond the reach of today's women.
Conte says that's because when there was little or no testing, athletes loaded up on the high-octane stuff, pure testosterone, which has a profound effect on performance, especially for women. With stricter testing, athletes now use lighter versions of PEDs, less effective but less detectable.
Anti-doping agencies "implemented out-of-competition testing," Conte says. "Since then, nobody can get anywhere near these (earlier) records."
Similarly, in baseball, Conte says, players can't use the pure testosterone they used before testing began in 2003. He says that his inside sources tell him some players use fast-acting synthetic testosterone, less powerful but can easily be flushed from the system. The fact that home-run production is down from pre-testing days, Conte says, is not proof that baseball is clean.
Conte claims that a key shortcoming of Olympic drug testing is the timing. He says he told World Anti-Doping Agency officials years ago: "Here's where you're not getting it right: When you build your explosive strength and speed and power base is October-November-December. Eight months later, they're winning gold medals based on the drugs they used nine months ago. So you don't need to be testing at the Games. ... You need to stick your hook and line and pole in the pond during this time frame. I know, because I was preparing people this way."
Conte says that leading up to the 2008 Olympics, the agency did exactly the opposite of what he suggested. It reduced the number of tests during the power-building time period.
"Now, if you know that's when the fish are biting, why do you reel in your hook and line, lean your pole up against a tree, put a straw hat on and decide to take a nap? So there's one of two things going on. You're either totally uninformed and you're choosing not to pay attention to what you hear from me or anybody else, or you're enabling, harboring and promoting the use of drugs."
Conte believes that many people in the anti-doping bureaucracy ignore or dismiss him because his advice would result, short term, in more positive tests. Therefore, "I'm bad for business."
He believes there is a long history of covering up positive drug tests of American athletes.
Conte says he had multiple long meetings with agency officials. His advice
was well received by Dick Pound when Pound was the anti-doping agency's president, but John Fahey took over in 2008 and said he preferred to take the advice of doctors, not convicted criminals.
Conte claims that he was told by Pound that the notes from Conte's meetings with agency officials were subsequently burned.
"What does that tell you?" Conte asks. "I just find this highly suspicious. Why would you do that? Is that smart business?"
From 1984 to around 2000, Conte worked legally and ethically with a wide variety of athletes and teams, planning training and nutrition. In 2000 he went to "the dark side."
He says he came back the instant his Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative offices in Burlingame were raided in 2003.
In "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," the villain eventually grows a heart and gives back the presents he stole. Since Conte is the Grinch Who Stole Sports, I asked him if what he is doing now -- trying to help anti-doping agencies -- is his way of giving back what he stole.
"I do feel a responsibility, yes, to help and do what I can," Conte says. "No matter what I do, I'm never going to be able to make it right. ... But that doesn't mean I shouldn't do my best to try. I feel that what I was doing, in a strange way, uniquely qualifies me to help. What I was trying to do was figure out, where's the loopholes? I know where all the holes are now."
Conte helped start a new anti-doping agency for boxers and MMA fighters, the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association. Of the first six athletes tested, two tested positive. "So maybe these ideas do work," Conte says.
Conte says that after his arrest he came to realize that doping wasn't simply a personal risk for him and the athletes, it was a crime that brought shame and pain to friends and families, including Conte's.
Now he's attacking life with the intensity and energy of a revival preacher.
"I've learned a lot throughout all this," Conte says. "I'm still having fun, I'm still making money, and I'm going to live my life and try to do what I can to help others not make some of the serious mistakes I made. I'm at peace with that."
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