Fourth in a four-part series
For more than a decade, BALCO founder Victor Conte has been an outspoken critic of anti-doping policies in sports.
He doesn’t oppose drug testing. But he is opposed to the ineffective methods and mechanisms in place. His critiques are often aimed at sports governing bodies, including the World Anti-Doping Agency.
His Twitter feed provides a steady flow of thought-provoking questions, comments and conversations related to the topic of doping in sports.
A recent snippet: “IMO (In my opinion). A fighter does not need IV rehydration unless he puts himself in that condition. Like TRT (testosterone replacement therapy) after steroid abuse.”
The BALCO scandal and related grand jury testimonies and court hearings shined a bright light on the sophisticated ways athletes, coaches and their enablers beat the system. But for Conte, when his BALCO headquarters in Burlingame, California, was raided by federal officials in September 2003, it signaled the beginning of the end for him.
Conte was finished as a distributor of PEDs.
“Once the raid came and once I realized what a bad choice I made, the question was what do you do with this knowledge you have,” Conte told the San Jose Mercury News’ Elliott Almond in a 2013 interview. “In my own way it was restitution. I feel the whole experience on the dark side gave me the unique qualification to join the collective effort.”
In fact, before Conte began serving his four-month sentence in prison in December 2005 on drug charges, Dick Pound, WADA’s president at the time, had reached out to the BALCO founder seeking help to combat doping.
BBC Sport’s website published Conte’s open letter to WADA in November 2007, weeks before Pound’s reign as president ended. (Presently, Pound, who was a longtime IOC vice president, serves on WADA’s 38-member Foundation Board.)
His letter’s introductory sentence: “I offer the following information because, as ironic as it might seem, I believe I’m qualified to clean up the massive problem of doping in sports.
“Doping is still rife in athletics, for the sole reason that it is still too easy to beat the testers,” Conte also wrote.
“There were no positive tests at the recent track and field world championships in Osaka, Japan. I don’t think anyone believes that more than 1,000 participants were all clean.”
And how. Earlier this week, the IAAF meted out suspensions to 28 athletes who competed in the 2005 and ’07 World Athletics Championships after retested blood samples revealed doping. A WADA-accredited lab in Lausanne, Switzerland, retested the samples, according to published reports. The names of the 28 athletes have not been released publicly.
A natural skeptic or conspiracy theorist can assume there’s no coincidence that the timing of these suspensions comes just days before the 2015 IAAF World Athletics Championships begins in the Chinese capital on Aug. 22. But this, of course, comes after the bombshell allegations made by The Sunday Times of London and German broadcaster ARD earlier this month that information leaked by a whistleblower revealed that more than 800 track and field athletes, competing in the 800 meters to the marathon at world championships and Olympic Games between 2001 and 2012, had blood tests that were “highly suggestive of doping or at the very least abnormal,” wrote The Sunday Times, quoting one expert.
Because of epic woes, and often ineptitude, in combating drug cheats — along with coverups — rampant doping use has been a major problem for decades.
Case in point: The U.S. track and field program over the years has been the subject of scrutiny, accusations and a number of high-profile doping suspensions, including Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery and Tyson Gay.
In a September 2000 article in The Daily Telegraph, a London-based newspaper, before the Sydney Summer Olympics got underway, journalist Andrew Alderson reported that “two former senior American athletics officials predicted that up to 50 percent of the nation’s 120 competitors will have taken performance-enhancing drugs.”
Alderson’s report included a scathing critique from Dr. Robert Voy, the former U.S. Olympic Committee chief medical officer.
“Many people at the USOC were in the business for one reason: to bring home gold,” Voy was quoted as saying. “Just how the athletes accomplished that — few cared.”
Another former chief of USOC drug testing, Voy’s successor, Dr. Wade Exum, is cited in the same report. Alderson summarized Exum’s comments, reporting that “half the American athletes at the 1996 Games had earlier failed a drugs test.”
Exum filed a 30-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Denver against the USOC in July 2000. Among Exum’s claims: “The suit accuses the USOC of deferring to each sport’s individual governing body on discipline, resulting in punishments that are nonexistent or so light that they encourage drug use,” ABC News’ Steve Gutterman reported that month. (Exum echoed his predecessor’s claims in the suit. As Gutterman wrote, “Exum says in the lawsuit that about half the American athletes who have tested positive for prohibited substances have gone unpunished.”)
“Dr. Exum is a truth speaker,” Conte tweeted this week.
In other nations, a large number of elite athletes used (or are using) performance-enhancing drugs. The aforementioned Sunday Times report stated that more than 80 percent of Russia’s medals were won by “suspicious athletes.”
Meeting notes destroyed
In December 2007, WADA asked Conte, who resides in California, to visit New York “all on their dime,” he said, for a meeting. For 3½ hours, Conte said he spoke to Pound, the then-WADA president, with a lawyer present at the meeting.
The lawyer “scribed every single word that I said,” Conte told The Japan Times in a recent phone interview.
Conte spoke his mind about a wide range of issues related to doping — who’s using what and the methodology and shortcomings of anti-doping authorities.
The former Tower of Power bassist said he recalled Pound appearing on a CBC (Canadian Broadcast Corporation) interview, saying, “Oh, I find Conte to credible. He’s a bad guy, but in my opinion, they need to listen to this bad guy.”
Fast forward to 2010, after Conte said he “became aware” of a substance known as AMTH-2, “an injectable substance in single, little vials.”
“Some of this (substance) managed to get to Dick Pound’s office . . . and on to the bench in the Montreal lab and Olivier Rabin, the director of science (at WADA), was involved in this project,” Conte stated.
“At that time, I went back to Dick and I said, Dick, now here we are three years later and I told you that all this stuff was going on, including the lab . . . and including what I’ve been told by people on the dark side,” he added.
What’s more, this was among the items Conte said he informed Pound about: “(In 2003), an 800-meter runner, a female, had taken what she thought was testosterone, but it turned out be contaminated with nandrolone (an anabolic steroid), and therefore they were routinely testing her every few days to see if this stuff would get out of her system before the world championships.”
He added: “(And) not only that, but from that same source, which was in Austria, I said not only that but the actual substance, and I’ll tell you who was caught using this was (Austrian cyclist) Bernhard Kohl. When he got caught (banned by cycling authorities in 2008, opting to retire), he admitted that he traded his AMTH-2 for some Cera (a blood-booster), a further generation of EPO (an endurance-enhancing hormone).”
“So I asked Dick to go back and look at the notes of our meeting and you will see what I (talked about) . . . and now I am actually delivering one of the substances that I had told you about (in 2007),” Conte told The Japan Times.
“So I said I want you to back and get the notes . . . and a couple of days later he called me back and said, ‘Victor, I’m sorry to inform you (but) I’ve been told the minutes to our meeting have been destroyed.’ ”
Was he surprised?
“No, not surprised at all,” Conte told this newspaper.
But in a December 2011 interview with the New York Daily News, Pound was quoted as saying, “The staff at WADA and USADA kind of write him off as somebody who was involved and therefore is forever suspect. He certainly has information about what’s out there.”
Succeeding Pound as WADA president was John Fahey, an Australian, from 2008 to 2013. Britain’s Sir Craig Reedie took over as chief executive last year.
During Fahey’s time in charge, he dismissed Conte as a credible informant or adviser.
According to Conte, Fahey summed up his feelings this way: “I choose to get my information from medical doctors, not convicted felons.”
“Well, medical doctors have not been on the dark side,” said Conte, who added that he has copies of 100 percent of the grand jury testimony’s sealed documents from the BALCO case. “They don’t know how it works. Why would you go there? Would you go to an air-conditioning guy to do heart surgery? It makes no sense.
“If they listen to what I say,” Conte went on, “then they are going to start catching more people, and it’s going to be very bad for the financial gain of those who are receiving the majority of it.”
Testing strategy flawed
In 2013, Pound, wrote a 26-page report, “Lack of Effectiveness of Testing Programs.” In the report, Pound acknowledged WADA and other anti-doping agencies have a long way to go,
“The number of tests goes up, and this makes the public feel good, but it doesn’t catch anyone,” Pound wrote. “Targeted testing is key. We need to target the right people, at the right times and for the right things . . . understanding the cocktails of drugs used is key. Understanding which substances work with others and the threshold levels for substances that help to mask others.”
Conte, meanwhile, has thought long and hard about a hypothetical scenario: changes he would make if he became the head of WADA or the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
“I would disclose missed tests,” he said. “You miss a test, everybody needs to know that.”
WADA’s World Anti-Doping Code includes a whereabouts protocol for targeted testing, first put in place on Jan. 1, 2009. This rule is posted on the WADA website, including the following: “The requirement for top-level athletes included in the registered testing pool of either their IF (international federation) or NADO (national anti-doping organization) to specify 1 hour each day — between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m. — during which they can be located at a specified location for testing.”
Critics point out that late-night testing is highly unlikely, thus providing ample opportunities for late-night microdosing. And, as described earlier in this series, via microdosing a drug can pass through one’s system quickly and not be detected hours later during a test the next day.
“I’ve never heard of any athlete being tested at any time other than during the morning hours,” Conte said this week.
The whereabouts protocol is a major flaw, Conte insisted, referring to the WADA guideline that states an athlete can have a combination of three missed tests and/or whereabouts filing failures within a 12-month period without being suspended.
“Here’s the problem with that: You fill out these forms, and you say you are going to train in location X, but you really go to location Y, and the odds are like 25:1 that they are even going to show up while you’re gone, but even if they do, and you’re not there, what’s the worst thing that happens? It’s like American baseball — strike one, so what,” he said. “What’s the upside? You just got a couple weeks’ cycle of steroids and other drugs under your belt.
“And that’s if they come, it’s strike one. So now instead of going, you tell them you are going to Y and you go to X this time, and they show up a second time, and you’re not there. It’s strike two. No one knows about it; it’s not disclosed, there’s no transparency whatsoever regarding missed tests . . .
“So now they are ready to target you. OK, you show up, you win the medal, get the endorsement contracts, you make the money. So what do you have to do? It’s just like a speeding ticket on your driving record, you just have to wait until the oldest one drops off, and, then, guess what they can take another strike, and increase the risk and you can not be there when the testers arrive.”
“Right there is a major issue,” Conte declared.
If an athlete misses a test, the time delay is a standard practice for doping control officials that’s another major problem, he said.
“Do they stay there and do they come back the next day and (stay) on you and give you this test three days in a row? No, they do not,” Conte said. “Here’s what they do: They go back and they send you a letter and they say, ‘Listen, you’ve had a missed test. In 30 days, we are going to schedule a hearing and you are going to show up and present some sort of exceptional circumstances-type evidence. We are likely going to say no and then you are going to have to make up the missed test.’
“But the flip side is, they’ve got a cycle of steroids under their belt.”
His major change?
“I would have complete transparency.”
What else would he change if he led WADA or the USADA?
“They have two classifications now. One of them is in-competition testing and the other is out-of-competition testing,” said Conte. “But there needs to be a third category, because they are not truly doing out-of-competition testing. Here’s what they do: You’re in Jamaica, let’s just say, and you leave to go to the European track circuit, you are going to do Oslo and Rome and Zurich and all these cities.
“When they know you are going to compete and the promoter’s paying for you and your hotel accommodations. Everybody stays at the same place like fish in a fish bowl, and you are going to race on Saturday and you get there on Wednesday to acclimate. The testers show up on Thursday and they test you. They call it out-of-competition (testing), it’s not out-of-competition; it’s in between competitions.
“And why do they do it? To save on the expense. They get everybody together . . . they go room to room to room.
“It’s complete nonsense. They know in advance when they touch down that they are going to be tested. They are not actually going to the country on their own soil and (doing) real out-of-competition testing.”
What’s another change he would recommend?
“Don’t test the top 50 people two times; test the top 20 people five times,” he said, adding, “They are the only ones that are going to make the semifinal and final, let’s say, of a 100-meter race, the top 16. So don’t waste your time testing these little people ranked 49th and 50th. Take those tests, and do more tests at the top, because that’s where the cheating’s going on, that’s where the races are being won. . . .
“So take your resources and put them at the top 20 . . . and you would catch a lot more athletes.”
- 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