Well, that assertion is not really correct. Victor Conte, the disgraced founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) that was the focal point of the sports world’s steroid scandal in the early 2000s, hasn’t just recently repositioned himself as a public figure. He’s been on the fringes of notoriety since he finished a four-month stretch in prison in March 2006 (he faced a maximum of 30 years behind bars) for steroid distribution and other felonies. Since his release from the slammer, the self-described former “public enemy No. 1” – who pleaded guilty to just two of the 42 counts in the indictment against him — has attempted to recast himself as not only a reformed miscreant, but as a righteous crusader whose vast knowledge of illegal performance-enhancing drugs puts him at the forefront of current efforts to clean up a scourge that has gone somewhat underground but continues to thrive in the dark shadows where it once existed.
Some former associates who prefer not to go on the record have described Conte, 66 (pictured with two-time Olympic gold medalist Nicola Adams), as a relentless self-promoter whose foremost interest remains himself and not the purification of sports through improved testing for banned substances. But whatever his primary motivation, the man who forever is destined to be linked to such acknowledged or suspected PED abusers as Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones, world-class sprinter Tim Montgomery, NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski, home-run king Barry Bonds and, yes, former boxing champion Shane Mosley suddenly has a much more prominent profile than he had just a couple of weeks ago. In the July 3 “Where Are They Now?” issue of Sports Illustrated, senior writer Tim Layden devotes four pages to Conte, a story which portrays the onetime villain, if not in a wholly positive light, at least not in a mostly negative one.
But whether Conte is zealously adhering to a straight and narrow path, or has merely found a better way to navigate a system that forever is in transition, his current business – SNAC Nutrition – is sure to reap the financial benefits of the kind of publicity afforded it by SI. SNAC is a wholesale distributor of nutritional supplements, primarily ZMA, a combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6, which Conte created and may or may not help users sleep better and recover more efficiently from workouts. ZMA already is selling so briskly that SNAC is “doing a million (dollars) a month in sales,” according to Conte, a figure that is sure to increase thanks to the magazine spread and most athletes’ never-ending quest to gain any edge that will help maximize their performance. To date, ZMA passes muster with all of the major drug-testing agencies, as do other innovations initiated or advanced by the post-BALCO Conte, including intermittent hypoxic-hyperpoxic training, to simulate effort at high altitude and recovery in hyper-oxygenated air. His current gym in San Carlos, Calif., about 25 miles south of downtown San Francisco, includes a 12-foot-high, clear-plastic tent connected to small machines called oxygenators to manipulate oxygen levels.
What caught my attention is the fact that the SNAC gym is populated almost entirely by boxers, who, Mosley aside, once constituted only a small segment of BALCO’s client list. That might be because boxing is a sport that remains too loosely regulated to bear extra-close scrutiny – “Boxing was the res-light district of sports, in terms of PED abuse,” Conte noted – but maybe because the fight game needs someone to help rescue it from itself.
“Boxing is straight-up about bodily harm, compared with running faster than the guy in the next lane, but there were no random testing programs in place,” he is quoted as saying. “I felt compelled to become an outspoken antidoping advocate for boxers.”
Conte’s intentions might be as noble as he claims they are, but when your reputation is that of a John Dillinger or a Willie Sutton, it is difficult to find employment as a bank officer because you have ample knowledge of the withdrawal process. In the past, Conte has offered his services to any number of testing agencies such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and state athletic commissions, but was met with rejection because, as Conte told me in a 2010 interview, “I’m a bad guy and they’d rather get their information from medical doctors than from a convicted felon.”
To hear Conte’s detractors tell it, he is and always shall be a slimy character who hopes to cleanse himself by smearing others, a ploy often used by certain politicians and used-car salesmen. When I spoke to him seven years ago, Conte’s rebuttal was that those who seek to vilify him, while paying lip service to the concept of sports scrubbed clean of PEDs, are not willing to go the distance because they know that sports fans aren’t really as interested in having all-natural heroes as they profess to be. And that very well might be true. Cheating is and likely always will be an attribute of human nature, in one form or another, which is why any claims that the PEDs problem has been totally and forever eradicated rings as hollow as the cork- or superballs-filled baseball bats that helped boost home-run totals in the major leagues before hitters decided it was better to doctor themselves than the implements of their trade.
Before they became familiarized with the benefits of such substances as Human Growth Hormone (HGH), Erythropoietin (EPO) and designer drugs that came to be known as “the Clear” and “the Cream,” fighters with no moral compass and thus disposed to break the rules did so by un-loading their gloves through the removal of much of the horsehair padding with tweezers (an offense for which trainer Panama Lewis and his complicit fighter, Luis Resto, were brought down in 1983) or loading their handwraps (see Antonio Margarito, 2008). The goal of achieving better boxing through chemistry was merely the next logical step in the process.
Those who would fight the good fight understand that little victories are where you find them, but the net cast isn’t wide enough or sturdy enough to catch all the transgressors. Dr. Margaret Goodman, the Las Vegas neurologist and co-founder of the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA), said total victory against PEDs might never be achievable.
“I don’t have the exact statistics now because I was going to try to put that together in the next couple of weeks, but I would say about 10 percent of the athletes we have tested did test positive for something,” she told me when I asked about the SI story on Conte, whom she knows but has not been in contact with for several years. “Is there still a problem? I’d say there is still quite a problem. Historically, that’s true.
“The ABC (Association of Boxing Commissions) is having their convention at the Mohegan Sun (in Uncasville, Conn.) in a couple of weeks and I have to give a talk, as well as one to the Association of Ring Physicians. They want me to address WADA testing. WADA, while considered to be above everything else, does continue to have some problems that boxing might actually be able to get rid of. Everyone is worried about conflicts of interest because WADA is subsidized by federations in sports like swimming and track and field, as well as by various governments. The thing that’s good about VADA is that we’re very transparent; we make sure that everyone that should get results, gets results.
“Federations and national governments that do their own testing potentially can find ways for results to be thrown out or not pursued. In the U.S. our doctors don’t work for the promoters, they work for the commissions and are reasonably independent, unlike the NFL, NHL and Major League Baseball where the doctors work for the teams.”
When less-than-stringent enforcement meets innovative experimentation, gaps in the anti-PEDs defense are inevitable.
“As far as looking for new substances, that’s just a fact of life,” Dr. Goodman acknowledged. “I looked at the statistics for 2015 – the stats for 2016 won’t get published until much later – and they were only catching one percent (of those tested), and only 65 percent of that one percent were being pursued because the results were either thrown out or (cases) not adjudicated.
“Are athletes going to cheat and find people that are going to help them go to newer substances all the time? Yeah. But WADA helps support research into finding those newer substances, just like Dr. (Don) Catlin at UCLA so many years ago found out what Victor was using.”
Like a cancer that was in remission but comes back, performance-enhancing drugs must be monitored regularly to avoid recurrence. Yeah, such should-have-been-baseball-Hall-of-Famers Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Roger Clemens were exposed as beneficiaries of PEDs, and to date have been shut out of Cooperstown, but any declaration of an end to baseball’s Steroid Era could be premature; maybe no chemically-altered slugger will whack 65 or more home runs in 2017, but MLB is on a pace to set a record for most long balls in a season.
“Baseball players were hitting 70 home runs, now they’re hitting 50 so they must be clean?” Conte asked, rhetorically. “No. They’re still using drugs, they’re just sneaking around more, and the gains are less because they have to duck and dodge the testing.”
In boxing, the necessity for ducking and dodging isn’t quite so compelling. Heavyweight contender Alexander Povetkin has twice tested positive for banned substances, but he was quickly reinstated after two suspensions and is coming off a 12-round unanimous decision over Andriy Rudenko for a couple of fringe titles in Moscow. Why hasn’t Povetkin been more sternly penalized for twice running afoul of avowed clean-boxing policies? Might it be because he is from Russia, a country that was guilty of a veritable orgy of violations involving its competitors in the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, perhaps with its government’s tacit or outright approval of a new generation of juicers? You’d hate to think that might be the case, but appearances aren’t always deceiving.
If Major League Baseball has taken a hard-line attitude toward drug cheats, excluding some tainted standouts from entry in its Hall of Fame, might boxing also institute sanctions that might bar repeat violators from passing muster with the International Boxing Hall of Fame selection committee in Canastota, N.Y.? For those top-tier fighters who place a high value on legacy as well as the size of their purses, such a threat conceivably could prevent some IBHOF candidates from crossing over to the dark side. But the fact that banned substances once were shipped to an “Evan Fields” at Evander Holyfield’s home address in Georgia didn’t prove a hindrance to “The Real Deal’s” induction in June, nor will Mosley’s link to BALCO and Conte, whom he unsuccessfully sued, prevent his official immortalization whenever he goes onto the ballot.
Dr. Goodman doesn’t know where the answer lies, only that boxing is best served with a fair and level playing field, which means that the fight must continue, forever if necessary.
“It’s frustrating,” she admitted. “Now, all you have to do is go on the Internet. You can find out what to take, where to get it, how much to take and when to stop taking it.
“But in any case it’s absolutely necessary to continue testing, even if testing isn’t always adequate to get the job done. You have to do everything you can to keep it fairer and safer for the fighters who are trying to do the right thing. But what’s the answer when national federations and governments are willing to do anything to have their athletes succeed? When the desire for gold medals or championships is so strong, there is an impetus to look the other way.”
Perhaps an in-depth examination of the presumably repentant Conte was in order. In the war against drugs, soldiers should not be pulled out of the line because their boots aren’t shined or there’s a button missing from their uniform jacket.
“It doesn’t matter what people say about me,” he said. “I’m an example that there is such a thing as a second chance. I’ve worked to regain my credibility. I would never risk it again.”
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