The U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials are continuing this week in Sacramento, California, with the shadow of a doping scandal hanging over some of the top athletes. The scandal involves several star runners, a former soul musician turned supplement maker, and the U.S. Anti-Doping agency (USADA).
It reads like a Hollywood melodrama script: athletically skilled heroes and heroines turned into villains, betrayal and retribution and a scandal with worldwide implications.
But this drama is very real, and involves some of the top performers in track and field, Major League Baseball, and the U.S. National Football League. The drama even reaches as far as the White House, with President Bush in his State of the Union Address this year vowing to eliminate steroids from sports.
"The use of performance enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous and it sends the wrong message, that there are shortcuts to accomplishment and that performance is more important than character," the president said.
Burlingame, California is not the kind of place one would pick out on a map. But the town of 28,000 residents outside San Francisco is the home of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, known as BALCO, the center of an international doping controversy.
Victor Conte, a former musician who became involved in the nutritional supplement business, runs BALCO. In 1988, the lab provided free testing and supplements for the so-called BALCO Olympians, whom Conte joined at the Seoul Games.
Because bodybuilders also used his supplements, Conte became involved with Greg Anderson, the personal friend and trainer of Major League Baseball single-season home run leader Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants. Anderson introduced Bonds to Conte, and by 2001, the slugger became one of BALCO's high-profile clients.
Anderson's friendship with Bonds also led to access to Major League locker rooms. Bonds also took Anderson to Japan, where the trainer met former Oakland and current New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi.
Later allegations of steroid use by baseball players, including sluggers Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti, brought doping in baseball to the fore by the end of the 2002 season. Major League baseball and its players' union agreed to a crackdown on steroids. But the head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, Dick Pound, said baseball's efforts were feeble.
"Is it being addressed in a realistic way that will be good for the players, for the game and for the American public? No, it's not," he said. "And I think Major League Baseball has to take this on board and come up with a realistic program, or it is going to lose whatever credibility it has."
Some of BALCO's other clients included members of the National Football League's Oakland Raiders, Miami Dolphins and Denver Broncos. Four Raiders' players, including longtime BALCO client and linebacker Bill Romanowski, would later test positive for a previously unknown steroid commonly called THG.
The August 2002 discovery of a previously unknown steroid norbolethone prompted an investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and federal government authorities. The drug had not been marketed for public use, but track coach Charlie Francis, who coached disgraced runner Ben Johnson in 1988, said it was popular with athletes at the 2000 Sydney Games.
The man who discovered norbolethone was UCLA chemist Don Catlin. Last June Catlin discovered and developed a test for the steroid THG when a syringe of the designer drug was sent to him. THG was closely related to other steroids but had been previously undetectable. An athletics coach, reported to be Trevor Graham, Marion Jones's and Tim Montgomery's former mentor, sent the syringe to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and indicated the material came from BALCO.
Last September, federal agents raided BALCO looking for performance-enhancing drugs. What they found sent shockwaves throughout the sports world. BALCO head Victor Conte led authorities to an off-site storage facility where they reportedly found suspected human growth hormone and steroids. They also discovered documents bearing the names and alleged doping schedules of some of Conte's clients.
Agents also raided trainer Greg Anderson's apartment and took away suspected anabolic steroids and $60,000 cash. In February, as U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft announced, Conte, Anderson, athletics coach Remi Kourchemny and a vice president of BALCO were later indicted for distributing steroids to athletes.
"After an 18-month investigation, a federal grand jury in the northern district of California unsealed a 42-count indictment charging four individuals with distribution of illegal anabolic steroids to dozens of athletes, including elite track and field athletes, as well as members of Major League Baseball, and the National Football League," he announced.
Once THG became known and a test for it developed, some of the top athletes in baseball, football and athletics began testifying to a federal grand jury. British sprinter Dwain Chambers tested positive for the drug and was banned from the track for two years. He also was banned from the Olympics for life.
Hammer thrower Melissa Price and shot putter Kevin Toth also tested positive, as did middle distance runner Regina Jacobs. Price and Toth were banned for two years. Jacobs has an arbitration hearing on her case this month.
World sprint champion Kelli White, who was coached by Remi Kourchemny, was also implicated in the scandal. White admitted to taking steroids and other banned substances and accepted a two-year ban. Her case also introduced the so-called non-analytical positive dope test, where athletes could be kept off the Olympic team because of the preponderance of evidence against them, even if they did not test positive for drugs.
USADA has said it will seek lifetime bans against 100-meters world record holder Tim Montgomery, Olympic medalists Chryste Gaines, Calvin and Alvin Harrison, and indoor champion Michelle Collins. None of the so-called "BALCO four" has qualified for the Athens Olympics.
Because Montgomery and Marion Jones endorsed some of BALCO's products, a pall of suspicion has been cast over them. Both runners blamed the stress of the doping investigation for their failures to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 100 meters. Jones has vehemently denied using drugs and has threatened to sue USADA if she is kept off the Olympic team because of the scandal.
"You know I am not just going to sit down and let someone or a group of people or an organization take away my livelihood because of a hunch, because of a thought, because of somebody who is trying to show their power," she said.
While Marion Jones fights for her professional life, Victor Conte and the three others defendants have pleaded not guilty. USADA continues to seek lifetime bans against the BALCO four. Conte even asked President Bush to set up a deal where the lab owner would reveal information in exchange for lenient treatment. The deal was refused.
With the Olympics starting next month, the scandal has raised questions whether the U.S. will send a "clean" team to Athens or not. President Bush, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain have vowed to drive steroids from sports. But with huge endorsement contracts and millions of dollars at stake for sports champions, it is not clear if even the U.S. government will be able to eliminate dope cheats from sports.