Blood Money

Originally Published: November 10, 2003
By Peter Keating and Shaun Assael | ESPN The Magazine

Her then-husband tested positive for steroids while under Contes watch, but that didnt stop Jones from working with him, too.BALCO headquarters doesnt exactly look like a hangout for some of the biggest stars in sports.

When the feds want to raid somebody, they start with an advance man, the kind of guy who youd say was casing a joint if he were working the other side. The advance man showed up early on the morning of Sept.3 at a sleepy industrial park in Burlingame, Calif. He asked some questions at a toy store, then surveyed the business next door, where the occasional fluttering of a small American flag stuck in a mailbox was the only visible sign of activity. His mission was simple: to leave its occupants no way out when the hammer came down.

The hammer fell just after noon. Unmarked Buicks pulled in to block the exits, helicopters pounded overhead and 20 agents, some wearing IRS flak jackets and carrying guns, stormed the headquarters of BALCO Laboratories. An hour or so later, a man with Albert Brooks hair, a thin mustache and rimless glasses was escorted away. Rubbernecking neighbors recognized him as Victor Conte, the brilliant, self-taught chemist who ran the lab. Soon Conte returned with agents who came for his many boxes of documents.

A mysterious track coach, a dirty syringe, a DaVinci Code-like plot too good for antidoping officials to keep quiet you cant keep an inquiry like that from bursting into view, especially when it threatens to envelop clients with names like Bonds and Romanowski and Giambi in the biggest drug scandal since the one that leveled Ben Johnson. Consider the facts: Two days after the BALCO raid, IRS agents searched the Burlingame condo of Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds personal trainer. A federal grand jury has been convened, reportedly to investigate BALCOs financial transactions. At least 40 professional and Olympic athletes have been subpoenaed to tell what they know. Bonds is scheduled to appear on Dec. 4.

The United States Anti-Doping Agency, the overseer of U.S. Olympic drug testing, has fingered Conte as the source of a recently discovered substance called tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), which the USADA claims is a designer steroid. USA Track and Field has announced that four elite American athletes have tested positive for THG. At least two of them, national shotput champion Kevin Toth and Olympic middle-distance runner Regina Jacobs, are BALCO clients. European 100-meter champion Dwain Chambers, another BALCO client, also flunked a recent test for THG. Federal agents asked for a postfight urine sample from Shane Mosley, yet another BALCO client, after he took Oscar De La Hoyas super welterweight title by narrow decision on Sept.13. (All samples had already been destroyed.)

So Conte, 53, a musician-turned-nutritionist whos been working the sports scene for 20 years, finds himself accused of being a major player in a netherworld connecting sports and drugs. But while antidoping officials say Conte has pushed into illegal territory, it remains to be seen whether they can back up the charge in court. For now, we dont know if Conte is the Al Capone of the supplement world or the Richard Jewell. But we do know he has a knack for getting the worlds top athletes to put their bodies and their careers in his hands.

Sept. 26, 2000. Its the Summer Olympics, and at a hotel ballroom in downtown Sydney, U.S. shotputter C. J. Hunter tries to explain how he failed four drug tests. With him at the hurriedly assembled press conference are the familiar faces of his then-wife, Marion Jones, and his lawyer, Johnnie Cochran. Also at the table: the not-so-familiar face of his nutritionist, Victor Conte. Soon, its Conte whos talking, and hes blaming the mess on contaminated over-the-counter supplements. Some manufacturers dont properly clean their equipment, he says. When they put on the next supplement, the first few batches are contaminated. Except that Hunters tests revealed more than 1,000 times the typical amount of the steroid nandrolone.

Sitting at home in Colorado, USATFmaster coach Randy Huntington shakes his head. It was like, Victor, what are you thinking? says Huntington, whos known Conte since 1985. Contamination causing a guy to test 1,000 times over the limit? Everyone will see through that. Disgruntled antidopers might have seen through it, or rival coaches, or cynical journalists. But with his performance, Conte was making sure athletes kept their trust in his ministrations. His talk and double-talk revealed an encyclopedic knowledge of what his clients put into their bodies. And his willingness to take the heat for Hunter showed a genuine loyalty.

Conte was, as hes always been, equal parts showman, lab rat and guru. Conte ran track at Fresno City College but his real affinity was for music. He started playing bass seriously as a teenager and later earned the nickname Walkin Fish for his onstage gyrations with the late-70s horn-powered funk outfit, Tower of Power. Conte played on 15 albums with various groups and toured with jazz man Herbie Hancock, but by decades end he was married, had three daughters and was looking for a new gig. Conte and his then-wife, Audrey, opened a health food store in 1980. Quick to absorb information, Conte mastered the mass spectrometer, which analyzes mineral content in blood, and in 1984 he started the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO.

While everyone else was touting Nautilus machines, Conte was peddling blood tests. He tested for as many as 40 minerals, then tailored vitamin regimens to address deficiencies. He insisted he could help athletes recover their strength after workouts in a fraction of the normal time. I thought it was junk science, says former Stanford track coach Brooks Johnson. But hed do the tests for free, and guys took advantage. Many who did were trained by Huntington, one of Contes earliest believers, who sent more than 150 athletes his way.

Victors tests became part of my standard athlete workup, he says, mostly because his athletes were sleeping better as a result of the regimen. Conte began to consult with members of the U.S. judo team, and by the summer of 1988, hed added swimmer Matt Biondi, discus thrower Mac Wilkins and six other U.S. discus and hammer throwers and shot-putters to his BALCO Olympians. Conte paid for their tests and supplements and for his own ticket to Seoul to counsel them during the Games. Its been very beneficial to keeping my body in top working form, Wilkins said at the time. Small businesses get big in two ways: word of mouth and breakout products. Mouths dont get bigger than the one belonging to Bill Romanowski, who was playing for the Broncos when Huntington introduced him to Conte in 1996. Conte gave the linebacker some minerals, and soon Steve Atwater, Terrell Davis, John Elway, Shannon Sharpe and Neil Smith were clients too. Then I got the Dolphins interested, Huntington says. Theyd send their blood to Victor, and hed analyze it.

One reason for his success: Conte stumbled across the fact that zinc boosts testosterone levels if taken before sleep, promoting muscle growth and healing. Athletes interested in that anabolic kick drew close, and Conte was quick to embrace the dual role of frontier researcher and guru. He expanded his analysis techniques well beyond cataloging trace minerals. By 1998, Conte wrote on his website, BALCOs tests on bodybuilder Flex Wheeler included blood chemistry, complete blood count, anabolic hormone levels. He gave interviews to the likes of Testosterone magazine, where he talked the musclehead jargon of cholesterol/HDL ratios and IGF-1 levels. And he actively sought new clients. At bodybuilding meets he hawked free workups in exchange for competitors blood. Then came the breakout product: a combination of zinc, magnesium and B-6 compound that Conte developed in 1999 and called ZMA. Since taking it retail, Conte has grossed about $10 million to date. Copycat compounds have sold another $90 million.

By decades end, Conte was testing and supplying hundreds of Olympians as well as NFL, NBA and tennis players. But his practice took another quantum leap when, just in time for the 2000 Olympics, he expanded into the realm of world-class runners. Romo passed the word about BALCO to 96 relay gold medalist Chryste Gaines, who told her track coach, Remy Korchemny, who also coached sprinters Chambers and Kelli White. Conte and Korchemny formed an unofficial track club and turned BALCOs newest customers into walking billboards, with runners wearing the ZMAinsignia. Soon, the BALCO bandwagon attracted megastars Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery. Not even Hunters bad news out of Sydney slowed Conte.

That winter, he hooked up with Barry Bonds, apparently through Bonds trainer, Greg Anderson, who worked his clients at a gym near BALCO. Im just shocked by what theyve been able to do for me, Bonds told Muscle & Fitness Magazine earlier this year. Team Conte had a big 2001: Bonds destroyed the single-season home run mark; Jones, Montgomery and White medaled at the Worlds; and Ronnie Coleman won a fourth straight Mr. Olympia title. But business was too good. Law-enforcement authorities, drug agencies, rival coaches and corporate sponsors were all taking notice, and a lot of them didnt like what they saw.

Start with Uncle Sam. Why would the IRS want Conte? The answer may lie in the financial trouble and litigation that litter his back pages. Conte didnt reap immediate profits from his supplement-to-the-stars operation. In fact, he was accumulating debt. In the early 1990s, for example, he borrowed $5,000 to $25,000 apiece from several associates and failed to pay it all back, according to the San Mateo Daily Journal. And starting in 1993, BALCO began to fall chronically behind on tax payments: over the past 10 years, the federal government, the state of California and San Mateo County have slapped a dozen liens on the company totaling more than $95,000.

Even after ZMAsales took off, Contes companies didnt always pay their bills. From 1998 to 2001, BALCO was sued by Linc Quantum Analytics, an equipment supplier; Quest Diagnostics, a blood testing company; and five banks or credit-card issuers, among others. Twice in 1999, the San Mateo County Sheriffs Office sent agents to seize funds from BALCO to pay down the firms debts. In a series of e-mail exchanges, Conte has defended his finances. Almost all of these lawsuits and debts [are] resolved and paid in full, he writes.

It is just not the practice of creditors and others to make an effort to change the public record after payments in full have been made. Conte has also been plagued by incidents requiring police attention. In 1994, fire struck his house in San Mateo and he was forced to temporarily move his family into a nearby home. Since 1986, San Mateo police have filed 24 reports after visits to Contes address, most commonly for residential burglary. Its something we dont see from many homes in the area, says Lieutenant Barbara Hammerman.

His marriage fell apart in 1995 and, after a bitter divorce, he got a restraining order against Audrey, claiming she was leaving coded death threats on his pager and had attacked him in a parking lot and threatened to put a bullet in [my] head. Acknowledging in court that her behavior left much to be desired, she alleged her ex-husband had been secretive about his finances, concealing assets to avoid paying alimony. They reached a financial settlement in 1997. And then there are Contes rivals for Olympic and advertising gold, rivals who were shocked to see Conte clients wearing ZMA colors in competition. Chambers wore a ZMAvest at the Penn Relays in 2001. In February 2003, Michelle Collins blitzed the 200-meter race at the Tyson Invite, then turned to TV cameras and said, Thank you, ZMA! At the national championships in June, White wore a T-shirt that said ZMA on the front and How Do You Like It? on the back.

Pushing ZMA, Conte landed in tracks equivalent of a rap war. In LA, owners of the high-powered HSI club bristled at Contes ascendancy. Back East, Trevor Graham, trainer to Jones and Montgomery, stewed when Conte introduced the ZMA runners to Charlie Francisespecially when Ben Johnsons former trainer signed them up, too. Other coaches chafed at seeing Conte wander through track meets with his black bag. In June, one of them heard a colleague remark, Stuff is happening. Victors going to get himself in trouble. Heres trouble: someone identifying himself only as a high-profile coach called USADA in June with information on a reputed designer steroid so powerful that you only had to shoot a few drops under your tongue. The source, he claimed, was BALCO Labs.

Soon afterward, Don Catlin, who heads the Olympic drug-testing lab at UCLA, received an Airborne Express package containing a used syringe. With his team of seven scientists, Catlin reverse-engineered the residue inside the needle and, in eight weeks, identified it as THG. Over the next six weeks, Catlin developed a test for THG, antidoping authorities went hunting for it among samples taken at the national track and field championships and USADA named BALCO as its source and referred the case to the Justice Department. With the IRS closing in and a grand jury called, Conte was caught in a whirlwind of blood and money.

So did he do it? Did Victor Conte include illegal substances in his custom-designed concoctions? Or is he just another in a long line of bright guys with business ideas good enough to earn him the right customers and the wrong enemies? Grand juries have a way of getting to the bottom of these sorts of questions, with their far-reaching and secretive investigative powers. Which means that if Conte is a real-life gateway to the drug underground, the BALCO investigation could look beyond his financial transactions, toward the hidden networks of off-shore labs and rogue chemists whom antidoping authorities have been so desperate to expose. But if hes not, a slew of high-profile athletes will have been dragged through the mud while the authorities whove been promising that theyre cracking the crime of the century will suffer a massive setback. It will take many months of testimony for the answer to shake out. Until then, some of the worlds most famous athletes and its most zealous drug hunters are going to have this in common: nights so sleepless not even a gulp of ZMA will help.

Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
• 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"