Second in a series
BALCO founder Victor Conte worked on the “dark side” when his San Francisco Bay Area company supplied performance-enhancing drugs to elite athletes, including sprinter Marion Jones and MLB home-run king Barry Bonds. That’s how Conte has frequently described those years at the start of the 21st century.
However, he remains an informed expert on the latest in cutting-edge doping practices.
To stay in the know about what’s going on, “I do have people that I talk to on the dark side,” Conte told The Japan Times in a recent phone interview. “Periodically, I’ll check in.”
But for several years now, Conte, who served four months behind bars before being released from prison in March 2006 after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids in the high-profile BALCO case, has been a fervent anti-doping advocate and an outspoken critic of the way sports governing bodies, including the World Anti-Doping Agency and the IOC, handle and administer drug testing.
“There will not be a genuine playing field in Olympic sport until all top athletes around the world are subjected to the same number and type of drug tests,” Cote told BBC Sport in November 2007.
In a 2013 interview on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Conte, who is based in California, summed up the issue this way: “It’s a level playing field; it’s just not the one everybody thought it was.”
On July 23, the CEO of SNAC System, Inc., which sells legal sports nutrition products, retweeted this poignant statement: “It’s not the number of times an athlete is tested that matters as much as what they’re tested for & when.”
In the wake of last weekend’s explosive allegations that more than 800 track and field athletes between 2001-12 had blood tests that were “highly suggestive of doping or at the very least abnormal,” according to The Sunday Times of London and German broadcaster ARD’s expose, Conte again ripped the methodology use in testing, calling for a greater reliance on carbon isotope ratio tests.
He tweeted: “(The percentage) of CIR tests is small. Many micro-dose under the radar. WADA could retest frozen samples. Do they want to know?”
Microdosing has proven to be an effective way to beat the system, in part because of the limited times that athletes are being tested. The Internet, where many substances are readily available, has become the preferred marketplace for purchasing a range of performance-enhancing substances.
For elite athletes, especially track athletes, IGF-1 Long R3 is now a popular purchase, according to Conte. It is an advanced form of IGF-1, “a growth-promoting polypeptide that plays a key role in promoting muscle growth, development and healing,” George Spellwin, a research director, wrote on the body-building website elitefitness.com, where it’s described as “a powerful upgrade on IGF-1 that causes an explosion of muscles.”
Regarding IGF-1 Long R3, “we know people are getting it, and they are using it, and they are running very fast, and it’s much different than just growth hormone because it’s like combining growth hormone and insulin, and insulin is a very powerful anabolic hormone,” Conte told The Japan Times.
“I used to use it back in the day with all the sprinters that I worked with, and you could use it post race for recovery or post training to enhance the recovery and for protein synthesis and to accelerate healing and repair . . . and they have no test for it.
“They have a test now for growth hormone . . . (but) they don’t have an isoform component to test for this IGF-1 Long R3, therefore you don’t have three legs in the table to stand up.”
He added: “This IGF-1 Long R3 the effects last for 10 hours, so they’ll wait until the evening . . . and then do it, and then by the time they wake up in the morning, they’re back to whatever will be considered the allowable limit (for the T/E ratio, or testosterone epitestosterone, testing). . . .
“Guys can microdose, use fast-acting testosterone, and they can use IGF-1, they can use growth hormone, they can use EPO (to trigger an increase in red blood cells), there’s all sorts of things that these athletes can do, because the clearance times are very fast, and the tests are not very extensive and some of them are subjective,” Conte said.
“In essence, what I’m telling you is the smart person who understands how to use these substances and the way the testing works . . . it’s like taking candy from a baby. It’s quite easy to circumvent the testing.”
Exhibit A: Lance Armstrong, who was stripped of his seven consecutive Tour de France titles (1999-2005) for doping. But as we now know, his estimated 275 passed tests didn’t prove he was clean.
“What does that tell you about the effectiveness of the testing?” Conte once said.
What’s more, The New York Times noted in 2008, Jones passed more than 160 drug tests during her track career.
Suspicious test figures
The IOC released the following numbers after the 2012 London Olympics: 5,051 drug tests were conducted during the Olympiad, with nine positive cases reported.
The startlingly low number of failed doping tests is hardly surprising to Conte.
“Well,” he said, “that’s because the testing is so inept it’s ridiculous. It’s not when you test people. You need to be there randomly during the offseason, during the October, November, December time frame, and that’s when you are going to catch these athletes using these drugs, not after they have already tapered off and show up on the soil of wherever the world championships or Olympic Games are being held.”
Asked what percentage of elite athletes he believes use performance-enhancing drugs, Conte blurted out this number: 80 percent.
Systemic problems were detected in Jamaica that made headlines in 2013.
That November, after a WADA audit of the Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO), the entire commission’s staff resigned en masse.
Here’s what WADA found: JADCO had conducted just one out-of-competition drug test in the five months before the London Games and no blood tests.
“I believe that what was going on there looks like the same state-sponsored doping that was going on in East Germany in the 1970s,” Conte says now, “meaning all the people at the top of the Olympic association, JADCO, (its then-chairman) Herb Elliott, the doctor that was involved . . .”
During his appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Conte gave his opinion of Jamaican track and field athletes’ use of PEDs. He said he believed they were using “seven or eight different drugs.”
In 2013, six Jamaican track athletes were banned for using PEDs, including sprinter Veronica Campbell-Brown, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, Asafa Powell, who once held the 100-meter world record, and Sherone Simpson, a 4×100 relay gold medalist in London.
Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter who hauled in three golds apiece (100, 200, 4×100) at the 2008 Beijing Games and in London, and the Caribbean nation’s drug testing were targets of skepticism from retired legend Carl Lewis in the Chinese capital.
“Countries like Jamaica do not have a random (drugs testing) program, so they can go months without being tested,” Lewis said in 2008, according to Reuters. “I’m not saying anyone is on anything, but everyone needs to be on a level playing field. I’m not saying they’ve done anything for certain. I don’t know. But how dare anybody feel that there shouldn’t be scrutiny, especially in our sport.”
Four years later, Bolt lashed out at Lewis while speaking to the media in the British capital.
But, as it turned out, Lewis was vindicated.
“A couple of years ago, I was attacked, especially by the Jamaicans and Usain, about my comments,” Lewis said, according to published reports in 2014. “But all of a sudden when what I said was true, everyone went silent.
“I think their issue should be, let’s go back and ask them (Jamaica) to show that they’re doing what’s supposed to be done because I don’t know of any country that’s had as many positive tests in the last three or four years than their country.”
When Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal, a then-record time of 9.79 seconds, for doping at the 1988 Seoul Games, it was perhaps the most scandalous moment in Olympic history. But sprinter/jumper Jones, one of Conte’s BALCO clients, was later stripped of her five medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics after admitting to steroids use beforehand. It was a reminder that female athletes aren’t immune from the scourge of doping woes.
That said, there’s a tarnished legacy in the women’s short-distance track races, Conte declared.
“If you go back (to examine the record book),” he said, “and one time I did a comparison with the female records for the 100, 200, 400 and 800 (and) 100 hurdles and 400 hurdles, I believe that every single one of those records . . . were all achieved by women using performance-enhancing drugs.
“One hundred percent,” he told The Japan Times.
After all, the drugs have proven they will deliver the results the athletes seek: victories, records and fame — and the financial rewards, especially endorsement deals, that are attached to those things.
“Using anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, that women can, because their levels of testosterone are only 1/10th of what a male’s are, (when) they take these drugs, I believe, that they get at least 4/10th’s (reduction in time) or 4 meter’s improvement and the men get 2/10ths or 2 meter’s improvement,” Conte said. “So women get greater effect from it.”
Lacking funds to fight
Even with a lucrative TV deal to broadcast the Olympics ($7.7 billion to NBC for its current deal through 2032), the IOC and global sports governing bodies that reap the benefits of those deals, WADA essentially operates on a shoestring budget: $26.5 million a year.
Which, clearly, isn’t enough money to effectively combat and monitor doping on a global scale.
“Is there a genuine interest in catching these athletes?” Conte said. “I don’t think there is. That’s what is the problem.”
Meanwhile, as the wide-ranging interview shifted to talk about one of the latest emerging doping scandals in sports, Conte insisted, the USADA’s probe of Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar needs to include a comprehensive investigation of Nike.
“I just have a hard time believing that Nike is not aware that not only coaches like Alberto Salazar, but I also believe that the strength coach John Smith needs to be investigated, and specifically because back in the day Angel ‘Memo’ Heredia (also known as Angel Hernandez) testified (in 2008-10 to the FBI and USADA) that he met with John Smith, the coach for (sprinter) Maurice Greene, in Houston about the use of drugs.
The authorities, he added, “have all the wire transfers, lab reports and emails and all this. After this, what happens? Maurice Greene is the (global) ambassador for the IAAF in (2008). Where’s the investigation of Maurice Greene and John Smith?
“And yet what I know is Nike forces elite athletes to go with various coaches, including John Smith. I’ve talked with sprinters and Nike says you go with this coach and you go with that coach, and if you want a sponsorship from Nike we are going to dictate who coaches you. . . . I think you need to look at the relationships between Nike and Alberto Salazar and Nike as well as John Smith.”
The Salazar probe may unfold into a wider scandal, which Nike may be expecting to drop like a hammer on a nail, Conte predicted.
“They may know what time it is, in my opinion,” he said.
- Conte expects Salazar to be banned
- Conte says top officials hindering fight against doping
- Conte says coverup protected big stars at Seoul Games
- Conte thinks WADA testing system a complete joke