- Mike Fish
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LAS VEGAS -- In his right hand, Victor Conte clutches a travel authorization form -- a single sheet of paper that contains his color mug shot and other critical goodies such as his flight schedule between here and San Francisco, the details of his weekend hotel accommodations at the ritzy Venetian, and the names of the folks in his travel party to Sin City.
As he holds the form up for display, as if on cue, Conte blurts out, "This is my ticket to the dance."
But before he hustles down the Strip and takes his first step out of Northern California and back into the limelight since his four-month federal prison camp sentence for his role in the BALCO doping scandal ended, Conte follows his probation officer's directive and checks in with the Las Vegas Police Department's Fingerprint Bureau.
The sprawling one-story building has the feel of a local Department of Motor Vehicles, where clusters of people kill time while they wait for their numbers to be called. Only here, on this Friday afternoon, a fair mix of the 75 or so out-of-town felons bear striking resemblances to the pay-for-play ladies who work the Vegas hotel lounges in six-inch stiletto heels, designer shades, tight jeans and halter tops. The scene amuses Conte at first, but he grows agitated as the wait drags on for over an hour. The man has business deals to pursue.
Finally, after officials pore over his legal paperwork, he's told there has been a mix-up. He doesn't need to register, after all. Nevada requires ex-cons to check in only if they have two or more felonies on their record. In Conte's case, they've lumped his convictions for conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids and money laundering into a single offense. So his 24-7 hustle is free to hit the Strip.
It's 2006 Olympia Weekend, the Super Bowl of bodybuilding; and Conte, a focal player in one of sports' largest doping scandals, is back making the rounds, mugging for the camera, selling his supplements and himself, and fitting comfortably into the carnival-like scene.
It is a freak show, full of surprises.
• At the Olympia Expo late Saturday afternoon, Mike Tyson, another ex-con, poses at a supplement company's booth, surrounded by a trio of topless models whose torsos are painted in Thermolife's colors of orange, black and gray. Amid the steroid-enhanced musclemen patrolling the Expo, Tyson looks sad and puny.
• Female heavyweight bodybuilders, some of whom could pass for men, stroll the aisles and strut their muscles.
• A Georgia-based supplement company that was busted two weeks ago by the Drug Enforcement Administration (the charges are illegally producing pharmaceuticals, including steroids, and felony conspiracy to import controlled substances) is open for business on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center.
• From a nearby booth, the Tempe, Ariz., Police Department seeks recruits from the Olympia crowd. Why? "Because they're extremely fit and dedicated," an officer explains.
Amid all this, the 56-year-old Conte spins his story, works the trade show and chats up old friends while he's careful to avoid a few old enemies. Conte's business, apparently, is good. By his unconfirmed reports, his Burlingame, Calif.-based Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning (SNAC) has held steady in its sales of the popular diet supplement ZMA, distributing in excess of 100,000 bottles a month to 70 companies worldwide.
Conte's major sales pitch to the bodybuilding/fitness crowd this weekend is for ZMA Nightcap, a new drink powder he's looking to sell in bulk form to major supplement labels. But mostly, Conte is content to blend seamlessly into the colorful scene, though every now and then he launches into a high sermon on sports doping.
"The more I was at the top of elite sport, the more I realized that the athletes really had no choice,'' says Conte, a self-taught chemist. "And I won't ever say the word 'all,' but the overwhelming majority of the athletes were using performance-enhancing drugs. And when I started to learn and developed relationships with some of the Olympic governing body officials and other coaches at the elite level, I realized that it was just a part of the game, and that, really, the whole history of the Olympic Games is about collusion, cover-up, corruption.
"All the focus to this point has been on the athletes. Get the athletes. Charge the athletes. Well, what about taking the spotlight and putting it on the Olympic governing body officials, the owners of the professional baseball and football teams? The executives of the players' union of the professional baseball and football teams? They have harbored this mentality of 'use or lose' for all these years."
If Conte and BALCO are dirty words in most sporting circles and demonized in league offices, they're no big deal in this gathering, where performance-enhancing has never been a deadly sin. A few people ask to have a photo taken with him. Conte even makes sure the cameras capture him in a biceps pose with newly crowned Ms. Olympia, Iris Kyle, who he claims consults with him. Others, such as a trainer from the World Gym, the one-time San Francisco training haunt of Barry Bonds and a handful of other BALCO athletes, shout out encouragement.
Former champion bodybuilder Pax Beale, a septuagenarian, slaps Conte on the back, congratulating him for taking on the government and standing up to the performance-enhancement denials of sprinter Marion Jones.
"You're a tough *&%#@*$," offers the crusty Beale.
"I appreciate the compliment," Conte says, smiling.
"You know, you throw that freakin' left hook, man," Beale adds. "What I like about it, you get them on the ropes and you don't quit. You keep taking it to them. The way you guys weathered that storm is just incredible."
"I appreciate it."
Conte loves it. He is nothing if not a showman, longing to be understood and appreciated.
He weighs every word uttered and written about him. He's hurt that soon-to-be prison inmate Patrick Arnold, an old friend and the inventor of the nondetectable designer drugs Conte pushed, would say in a recent Sports Illustrated article that Conte made a mess of sports, that he ruined the level playing field -- even if the field was never quite perfect in the first place.
"The misconception is that I was in some way preying upon these athletes," Conte says, "or tricking them or misleading them in some way. If anything, I realized there was some responsibility and accountability involved in what I was doing. The athletes that I worked with that were involved in the case were all at least 25 years of age or older. Many of them were over 30. They're adults. And they know that there is a benefit.
"Did I know that there were risks involved in what I was doing? Yes, I did. I just felt that somebody needed to look out for these athletes and help them, because one thing I do understand is too much is just as bad as not enough."
Just down the aisle, Conte stops to chat up bodybuilder Milos "The Mind" Sarcev, making sure the former Mr. Universe from Serbia (formerly Yugoslavia) dons a black knit shirt with "SNAC" printed on the front. Sarcev, 42, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to possess anabolic steroids, a misdemeanor, as part of a federal probe into the shipment of steroids from Thailand.
Sarcev, a self-described steroid expert, trainer and gym owner, created weight lifting programs for several BALCO athletes, including sprinter Tim Montgomery. He told ESPN.com that he supports Olympic doping control, but only because steroids work too well.
Dennis "The Menace" James, another bodybuilder who pleaded guilty to the same misdemeanor charge in the steroid case last year, hastily waddles away when approached by a reporter. But Sarcev, who argues that steroids have been unfairly demonized, stays put.
"I'm going to tell you this, they [are] absolutely crazy," Sarcev says of the government's crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs. "The government is feeding the media wrong information, that anabolic steroids are destructive drugs. Anabolic is a word; it means 'constructive.' Not 'destructive.' Anabolic steroids can be very healthy medications. They are used for critically catabolic patients -- HIV, after injuries, burn victims. [When] everybody is dying, feeling ill, weak, cannot function -- that is when doctors give them steroids and they revive.
"So when I ask what is so bad about this destructive drug, it is absolutely nothing bad. They made Clark Kent [into] the Superman. But the thing is, the media wanted to create that hype and push people away from steroids. [The] Olympic Committee does have a right to test for it, because whoever uses is superior. That is a different subject. I completely support Olympic sports and doping control, because whoever uses doping will be fastest, stronger and so on."
(Many in the medical community, of course, take issue with Sarcev's characterization of the benevolence of steroids. Research indicates a connection between steroid abuse and health problems such as heart disease and certain types of cancer. They fight against the use of steroids for anything other than medical purposes.)
It's late now, and the friends bound by steroids and a desire to turn a buck amble out of a convention hall that for this weekend is a shrine to the lucrative supplement industry. At almost every turn, there is a booth fronted by fit, sexy models pitching energy products, fat burners, capsules hyped as testosterone elevators and natural compounds designed to replicate steroids and human growth hormone.
Some of these supplements go by screaming, larger-than-life names such as Extreme Thermo Rage ("Are You Enraged?") and Hot-Rox Extreme. Others play up the science behind them, with mind-numbing names such as OraTropin-1 (Cell-Mediated IGF-1) and HexaTropin-6 (Cell-Mediated Growth Hormone Peptide).
As Conte moves on, he talks freely about his desire to extend his celebrity with book and movie deals, and warns that doping in sports is here to stay, that baseball boss Bud Selig, blustery World Anti-Doping Agency honcho Dick Pound and the lords of the Olympics won't be able to fix it.
And that T-ball parents and soccer moms better understand that their kids, if they get to that level, will be left with little choice.
"In 10 years," Conte says, "when that kid is 22 and a guy goes, 'Dude, here is the final step -- drugs,' he's going to do it. So if you don't want him to come to that decision, then let him go be something else, but not an Olympic or professional athlete. And they're not about to clean it up because of the money.
"It's all about the money."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BALCO principal Victor Conte spent last weekend in Las Vegas at the 2006 Olympia bodybuilding contest, and ESPN.com's Mike Fish went along for the freak show.