The politics of steroid abuse

Updated: February 12, 2004, 6:36 PM ET
By Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

In choosing to personally announce the indictment of Barry Bonds' trainer, Greg Anderson, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft has put the sports world on notice that steroids aren't an in-house matter anymore. The Bush Administration has, literally, made their use a federal case.

The most significant steroid prosecution in a decade points up the abject failure of pro sports to police steroids and their kin. It also shows that the people who were peddling them had grown too bold, and exercised too much hubris. They made it impossible for the government to sit back and just watch anymore.

Indicted alongside Bond's trainer is Victor Conte, a nutritionist-to-the-stars from San Francisco who is accused of peddling the designer steroid THG. As recently as August 2003, at the World Track & Field Championships in Paris, Conte seemed to be on top of the world. Besides Bonds, his client list included middle distance runner Regina Jacobs, shot put champ Kevin Toth and sprinter Kelli White -- all record-setters. Conte seemed to be an example of the new, powerful generation of supplement gurus who got as much credit for their clients' records as did the athletes' coaches. Bonds was enthused by his advice. So too was Bill Romanowski, the Oakland Raiders linebacker.

But according to the indictment, Conte straddled a dangerous line, mixing illegal steroids with his legal supplements. And we're not talking about garden-variety steroids -- the type that anyone can find in the local gym. Conte is accused of peddling an exotic concoction that could fly under the most sophisticated drug tests.

This is a precarious moment in the history of the anti-doping movement. The World Anti-Doping Agency, a watchdog that oversees all Olympic testing, is trying to cobble together a missile defense of sorts that uses evolving tests that are engineered by well-known steroid hunters like Don Catlin, head of the Olympic Analysis Lab in Los Angeles.

Thing is, a defense is only as good as the area it covers. So far, only the Olympics, the NFL and the NCAA subscribe to its code. Baseball, basketball and hockey have refused to follow suit, laying the blame on their unions.

In baseball, the result has created a golden age of drugs. During an experimental testing program last spring, more than 5 percent of the players tested positive -- enough to fill the rosters of two teams. By indicting Anderson, who is charged with possession of human growth hormone with intent to distribute, conspiracy to launder monetary instruments and money laundering, the Justice Department is reaching into a place that union chief Don Fehr has zealously protected -- the locker room.

A lot of people are worried about what Anderson might say should he decide to cut a deal, and that presumably includes Bonds, who seemed ready to retire when he told ESPN The Magazine last September: "I had my fun and I keep screwing up and coming back. What for? Why bother. I can't do this anymore. I've already told the guys: a few more games, and I'm gone."

Just as intriguing is where this indictment stops. Conte, a former rock bassist who made millions from some quirky pop science notions about minerals, is charged with being a middleman in a chain that included Anderson and track's Remi Korchemny, a 71-year-old Ukrainian coaching legend whose career he helped revive. What it doesn't mention is who was on the front end of that chain, the genius who created THG.

Matt Jacobs, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, refused comment on whether other indictments are expected. But a federal law enforcement source said that a plea deal with Conte would have to involve testimony that identifies who designed the drug. Without that "gotcha," the feds will have a hard time claiming that they've dealt any kind of blow to the drug underground.

And they need a win here.

The last time the Justice Department put this much prestige behind a steroid prosecution was 10 years ago, when it accused wrestling impresario Vince McMahon of steroid distribution. The U.S. Attorney's office in New York suffered an embarrassing loss in the case, and McMahon has never let them forget it.

Since President Bush made this an issue in his State of the Union address, a loss here would set the anti-doping movement back at least as much as the next designer drug du jour.

Shaun Assael is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at shaun.assael@espn3.com.

• Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine
• Author of "Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour"; the New York Times best-selling "Sex, Lies and Headlocks"; and "Steroid Nation"

ALSO SEE