Third in a series
Years before he made the decision to “go down the slippery slope,” and provide performance-enhancing drugs to elite athletes, BALCO founder Victor Conte, a standout triple jumper in high school, made a name for himself as a self-made expert.
“(Starting in 1984), I was doing comprehensive blood testing and nutrition programs for 16 years, Super Bowl champion teams and all sorts of world-class athletes for many years before I made the decision to use ‘the Clear,’ (aka THG, or tetrahydrogestrinone, a potent anabolic steroid) and these other performance-enhancing drugs,” Conte recalled in a recent phone interview with The Japan Times.
But the former Tower of Power bassist remembers a seminal moment from 1992 that he said cemented his choice eight years later to begin dispensing PEDs to his clients.
Shot putter Gregg Tafralis, who had attended College of San Mateo, was one of his clients in ’92, the year of the Barcelona Summer Games.
In the run-up to the 1992 Summer Olympics, Conte received a phone call from The Athletics Congress, now known as USA Track & Field, the official informing him that Tafralis had failed a drug test. Tafralis had tested positive for dianabol, an oral steroid.
Conte reached Tafralis, a ninth-place finisher at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, by telephone to confirm the details.
“I called Gregg and said, ‘Gregg, are you taking dianabol?’ ” Conte recalled.
“And he goes, ‘Yeah, but I went off the same number of days that I always do before the competition and I’ve never tested positive before.’
“Well, I’ve been told that you tested positive . . .”
A few days later, a TAC elder statesman died. Conte’s contact at TAC attended his funeral and a reception for the senior official.
What happened next still triggers a surprised tone in his voice 23 years later.
“All of a sudden the same (TAC) guy calls me back and says, ‘Well, listen, tell your boy (Tafralis) that he’s off the hook,’ ” Conte recalled.
“What do you mean?” Conte asked him.
“Well, we went to the reception after the funeral for one of the elder statesmen at TAC,” Conte recalled being told, “and there were five of the guys that got together and just decided it wasn’t a good time for these results to come out and they are going to be swept under the rug.”
“Oh my god, you must be kidding me.”
Although he tested positive, Tafralis finished fourth at the U.S. Olympic trials in June 1992, in New Orleans, failing to qualify for a coveted spot on the team heading to Spain.
Indeed, sports governing bodies are not immune to coverups, corruption and other scandals.
Conte said he believes a coverup “all the way to the top” involved track and Olympic officials at the 1988 Seoul Games. He said sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner, heptathlete/long jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee and 400-meter hurdler Andre Phillips — three marquee gold medalists — all tested positive for PEDs in the South Korean capital, and “they were all covered up.”
“And if you noticed what happened thereafter was that here at (28) years old Flo-Jo was at the height of her economic earning potential and all of a sudden she retires,” said Conte, looking back on the immediate aftermath of Griffith Joyner’s three-gold, one-silver medal haul in Seoul. “And Jackie Joyner also retires, (though) she did come back in 1992, four years later. . .”
In the United States, random out-of-competition drug testing was approved by the TAC and began in 1989.
In June 1989, Edwin Moses, the 400-meter hurdles legend who had a stunning 122-race unbeaten streak between 1977 and ’87, penned an article for The New York Times entitled “Liberate track and field from steroids.”
Here’s one poignant passage from the piece: “Last December, I talked with a world-class hammer thrower, an American, about the drug problem. He said he wanted to compete, but he didn’t want to take drugs. He said the only thing he could do was retire because he couldn’t be competitive without drugs. He said he thought about it, he researched it and he retired. He said he hoped our imminent out-of-season testing program plus our competition testing program would become effective quickly so he could come out of retirement.”
(Flo-Jo died in her sleep in September 1998 of suffocation from an epileptic seizure. She was 38. Since her death, several prominent track insiders have insisted that Joyner used massive amounts of human growth hormone and steroids.)
Joyner-Kersee collected six Olympic medals in total from 1988, ’92 and ’96. But Conte claims that he overheard the news that Joyner-Kersee’s urine sample during the heptathlon competition had tested positive for PEDs. One of the Olympic track officials in Seoul approached Bob Kersee, her husband and coach, and informed him “right where I was sitting,” Conte said.
Reflecting on the issue in broader terms, Conte added, “I believe positive drug tests are bad for business, but I believe that there are people at the very highest levels who are in essence looking the other way. And I know for a fact that there’s been a lot of positive drug tests that have been covered up . . .”
Fueled by a BBC “Panorama” documentary and ProPublica expose in June, the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s ongoing investigation of serious doping allegations against Nike Oregon Project coach Alberto Salazar has sparked comprehensive media coverage spanning the globe.
Asked to assess how damaging the BBC/ProPublica investigative reporting could be for track and field if the USADA findings confirm much of what’s been reported, veteran Olympic journalist Philip Hersh of the Chicago Tribune said it would be a devastating blow to the sport.
In an email to The Japan Times, Hersh, who has covered 15 Olympic Games during a distinguished journalism career, wrote: “(It would be) very damaging to a sport that is struggling worldwide. The only thing worse would be for (Usain) Bolt to test positive/be found to have doped. If that happens, the sport is officially dead.”
Furthermore, earlier this month, the explosive charges made by The Sunday Times of London and German broadcaster ARD that one-third of the medals (146 in all, including 55 golds) captured in running events from the 800 meters to the marathon in world championships and Olympic Games between 2001 and 2012 were by “athletes who have recorded suspicious (blood) tests” raised more alarm. (A whistleblower leaked the data of 12,000 blood tests of 5,000 track and field athletes from the aforementioned years.)
The Sunday Times called it “the biggest leak of blood test data in sporting history.”
And all of this has happened in the run-up to the 2015 IAAF World Athletics Championships, which commence on Aug. 22 in Beijing, putting national and global sporting authorities under further scrutiny.
Sebastian Coe, the English running icon who is seeking the IAAF presidency in an election to be held next week in the Chinese capital, called The Sunday Times/ARD report “a declaration of war on my sport.”
Conversely, Conte calls it business as usual: e.g. doping is acceptable.
“(This) goes all the way beyond the athletes and the coaches,” Conte told The Japan Times. “I believe it goes all the way to the top, meaning beyond Nike to television networks that broadcast these events all the way to the Olympic Games to the International Olympic Committee, WADA itself and the IAAF itself. I believe they are corrupt from top to bottom.
“I believe they all know that there’s a rampant use of drugs.”
Specifically, he summed it up this way: “Everybody is using synthetic testosterone.”
Some people, he pointed out, will say, “Oh, what difference does it make? The cheaters are always going to be one step ahead of the testers and they’ll just create another designer steroid and another one and another one, and they’ll just stay one step ahead.”
“Absolutely not true, and false,” Conte declared.
Conte said that before the BALCO scandal erupted in 2003, when his headquarters was raided by federal officials, drug testing protocol was for around 35 anabolic steroids. This, he added, included a related substances clause that had two prongs: A. “Similar in structure to testosterone;” and B. “There had to be some kind of scientific evidence that the substance promoted protein synthesis or muscle growth.”
Because of the BALCO scandal, WADA, USADA and other anti-doping agencies changed the testing protocol. And any substance similar in structure to testosterone was banned, without tests having to provide scientific support or evidence.
In essence, Conte said, “There no longer needs to be any scientific evidence showing it promotes protein synthesis or muscle growth and they charge you.”
He added: “So instead of guys continuing to modify these anabolic steroids in different ways to stay one step ahead like they were doing, they could no longer do that. Because they will bust you because it’s similar in structure. And let me repeat: All anabolic steroids are similar to testosterone. Therefore, they went old-school: They started using fast-acting testosterone, microdosing with testosterone.”
Conte called it “an epidemic of testosterone.” He said that “people are still looking for designers that don’t exist, and instead, everyone’s flying under the 4:1 T/E ratio (testosterone/epitestosterone ratio).”
After serving four months in a California prison and being released in the spring of 2006, Conte became an active and outspoken anti-doping advocate He’s appeared on a number of TV and radio programs. He’s been interviewed by a wide range of print publications and other news outlets. He’s met with USADA and WADA officials, offering advice and tips to strengthen their drug testing programs.
In his back-and-forth talks with Dick Pound, the founding president of WADA, in 2012, Conte told the influential Canadian that “the biggest loophole that existed was the T/E ratio, and the fact that these WADA labs were not for the most part using the carbon isotope ratio (CRI) test as a screen test, but only as a confirmatory test. Meaning once you had, like say, (disgraced Tour de France cyclist) Floyd Landis an 11:1 T/E ratio, then they would take the samples and the carbon isotope ratio as a confirmatory test so they would have a stronger case when they went to arbitration.
“But I believe that the actual amount of screening or if they got any intelligence that somebody was using testosterone, less than 5 percent and likely less than 1 percent of the urine tests that were performed were where they were using this carbon isotope ratio test.
“So here’s what Dick asked me to do: He said I want you to give me a list of six athletes and coaches that you believe are using performance-enhancing drugs and what tests you would do, and how you would approach this. In other words, if you were king for a day what would you do with anti-doping? That was a specific question he asked me.”
Conte complied with Pound’s request. He named the following: coach Alberto Salazar and distance runners Galen Rupp and Mo Farah; sprinter Carmelita Jeter and hurdler Jason Richardson under John Smith; and Jamaican speedsters Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake and their coach, Glen Mills.
“Here’s what I specifically advised that they do: Go back to the (urine) samples that were collected that are frozen for these athletes, you take a look at these performances, as an example, you isolate Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake,” Conte recalled. “You look at what they did in 2008. You look at what they did again at the world championships in Berlin in 2009, when the world records were set that still stand, both the 100 and 200 meters by Usain Bolt, and look at these times when Carmelita Jeter was running 10.64 (seconds, in the 100, at the 2009 Shanghai Golden Grand Prix) and all these extremely crazy times, and the same thing with Mo Farah . . .
“. . .Collect their samples before these championship races where they ran very fast and you do the carbon isotope ratio test for synthetic testosterone.”
As planned, Pound submitted the just-cited information to David Howman, WADA’s director general, stating, in the words of Conte, that “they could target these frozen urine samples and they could do these tests.”
The idea was rejected.
“Basically, Dick Pound was told, ‘Are you kidding me? You think we want to destroy the entire Olympic movement?’ We’re not going to do those damn testings. So they showed no interest whatsoever in this,’ ” Conte recalled.
For Conte, WADA’s all-out rejection of what he proposed was hardly surprising.
“These guys are politicians,” he said. “I think they are more concerned with the money they raise for advertising dollars that they get for the Olympic Games, and that’s what they are concerned about. And I believe that in the beginning the entire reason that WADA was founded (in 1999) was an appeasement of the sponsors, trying to protect their investment dollars.
“They wanted to make sure that these athletes weren’t going to test positive so they were the ones that requested when they were asked for sponsorship money to have testing. That’s why WADA was founded, in my opinion.”
- 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
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