Roids Rage: BALCO, Victor Conte and The Clear

Posted: September 22, 2011 by Kodi in Other

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the 1980’s you have seen a dramatic increase in the limits athletes have pushed their bodies. Sporting events and those athletes who participate have become one of the greatest sources of entertainment for the entire world. The men and women who train vigorously know that if they excel in sports, no matter which one, they have the chance to become something from nothing. There is really no question why athletes take performance enhancing drugs, they want to be great and can anyone really blame them. Athletes are on pedestals, while the greats are cast in bronze and made into statues in cities across the world, but did we really expect one of the greatest steroid scandals in sports history to be created by a bassist? This is a summary of the Victor Conte story. . .

Victor Conte was a bassist in Tower of Power, a R&B Jazz hybrid from the Bay Area, along with his cousin and guitarist Bruce Conte during the mid ‘70s into the ‘80s. Conte felt that life on the road wasn’t a place to raise children and in 1984 he is given the opportunity to start a vitamin shop in Millbrae, CA named Millbrae Holistic. It was just a year later that Conte closed the shop’s doors and opened the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) in Burlingame, CA.

Conte and BALCO’s success came from a vitamin and mineral supplement cocktail known as ZMA (Zinc Monomethionine Aspartate and Magnesium Aspartate). There are many different variations of ZMA whose main ingredients are Zinc, Magnesium and Vitamin B6 but BALCO’s is known as the best. Zinc and Magnesium are the key components in this supplement because they both are extremely important to building muscle. Zinc is vital to the hormone regulation of testosterone and Magnesium allows more oxygen into muscle tissue and if you are deficient in either mineral your body’s ability to reach its full capabilities are extremely hindered.

There have been multiple studies about the results that may be achieved with ZMA and they have shown that it has the ability to increase testosterone by almost 30%. Those who were given ZMA as part of this study had their strength increased by nearly three times the amount of those who were given a placebo. Conte’s has stated the key to ZMA’s success is the need to reduce the amount of Calcium in your stomach when you digest his supplement.

Calcium is a known inhibitor of Zinc and Magnesium which doesn’t allow the minerals to absorb in the body “normally” rather hindering the process by up to 70 percent. The studies on ZMA have been tested and accepted for publication by Sports Medicine, Training, and Rehabilitation Journal one of the leading Journals in sports medicine. From 1988-96 Conte and BALCO claims that there was a multitude of Olympic athletes during these years that took his legal ZMA supplement.

BALCO’s big break came in 1996 when NFL LB Bill Romanowski and many other Denver Bronco’s began using certain supplements offered by Conte and his company. Romanowski referred many athletes to Conte, including Remi Korchemny, a sprint coach who trained 3 Olympic medalists. Conte and Korchemny wound up creating the ZMA Track Club which included athletes like Tim Montgomery, Calvin Harrison, Kevin Toth and Marion Jones. They would wear patches of the ZMA logo and talked about the benefits of the product during interviews. From 1999 to ’03 Conte claimed that he and BALCO made over $100 million in sales of the ZMA supplement.

Conte had been profiting from the high profile athletes who were now foaming at the mouth for an opportunity to work with BALCO and use these supplements. Marion Jones Husband at the time C.J. Hunter hired Conte as his personal nutritionist but Conte was about to deal with a doping scandal head on for the first time. In Sept. of 2000 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) announced that Hunter had tested positive on 4 separate occasions for the steroid Nandrolone.

Nandrolone is an anabolic steroid that is naturally present in the human body but at very small levels. It has been used in treatments for Osteoporosis in women but because of its ability to increase muscle growth, red blood cell production and bone density made it a heavily sought after drug for athletes. Conte claimed that Hunter’s circumstances were a result of a mislabeled nutritional supplement and that the IOC and IAAF had withheld important information from Hunter that could have helped him avoid the doping offense.

Conte was able to divert the attention away from himself, his business partners and company after this initial positive test but doesn’t come away unscathed. The U.S. Sports Federations (USSF) had previously been responsible for drug testing but just a few days after Conte’s and Hunter’s press conference the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) began its operation and took over for the USSF. The USADA’s budget is funded through the Office of National Drug Control Policy and its mission statement “is to preserve the integrity of competition; inspire true sport; and protect the rights of athletes”.

The USADA, Federal and local law enforcement all began investigations in 2002 but an anonymous phone call on June 5, 2003 broke the whole scenario wide open. The caller informs the Anti-Doping Agency the Victor Conte and his company BALCO has a chemist that has created and distributed a undetectable designer steroid. The next day the USADA received a package from this anonymous caller and inside was a syringe that had trace amounts of the substance discussed the prior night.

The anonymous caller was later identified as Trevor Graham, a member of the 1988 Jamaican silver medal winning 4×400 team and a sprint coach who directed such athletes as Justin Gatlin, Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones. The USADA sent the syringe, which Graham later claimed came from Jones, to the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory where the founder and then director Don Catlin, MD. It took some time but Catlin and his lab were able to identify the substance and was able to develop a testing process for the performance enhancer.

Catlin was more than surprised when the USADA gave him the syringe, saying “nobody has ever brought us a syringe before and said ‘Here, find out what’s in it’, it’s a chemical whodunit, a needle in a haystack” but his ability to identify this proverbial needle allowed him to win the Sportsman of the Year for 2002. Terry Madden, CEO of USADA was well aware of what was soon to be exposed saying:  “We are fairly certain that the substance came from Victor Conte and BALCO Labs, we are not sure of their exact role – there may have been many other people involved”

The substance was Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) created by Chemist Patrick Arnold prior to the 2000 Summer Olympic Games for Conte and BALCO. Arnold was a Chemist with a degree from the University of New Haven who had gained notoriety in 1996 when he introduced Prohormone Androstenedione otherwise known as Andro. The product really took off when a reporter questioned HR slugger Mark McGwire about his possession and use of Andro. Arnold had been approached by Conte inquiring about substances he could give to his athletes that were undetectable, knowing that Arnold was the biggest thing in the business at the time.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated Arnold recollected his conversation with Conte, “I told him, ‘You shouldn’t use them because I can’t guarantee that it won’t be detected.’ . . . I also told him ‘A better way would be to try [another substance Arnold created] because I don’t think it will show up in any drug test.’ And that sort of opened Pandora’s box”. Clearly, as Conte paid Arnold for the next three years to develop this designer steroid for BALCO and their athletes.

THG is often referred to as The Clear was created by Arnold and manufactured by BALCO through the manipulation and hydrogenation from Gestrinone, a substance used to battle Endometriosis and a banned anabolic steroid. The Clear resembles Trenbolone, another anabolic steroid, but its potency surpassed any known steroid available at the time Arnold created it. Patrick Arnold claimed that “just a couple of drops under the tongue” were a sufficient enough dose, but many athletes were injecting The Clear.

Conte and everyone under BALCO’s umbrella were about to face a shit storm of epic proportions. It took just a few months for the USADA to contact the proper law enforcement and obtain the warrants to raid everyone involved.

To Be Continued. . .

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