BALCO scandal

BALCO scandal

The BALCO scandal is a scandal involving the use of banned, performance-enhancing substances by professional athletes. The Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) was a San Francisco Bay Area business that supplied anabolic steroids to professional athletes. The incident surrounds a 2002 US Federal government investigation of the laboratory.[1]

History of BALCO

Founded in 1984 by Victor Conte and his first wife Aubry, BALCO began as Millbrae Holistic, a vitamin shop in Millbrae, California. Initially a business venture to keep food on the table, only one year after opening, Victor Conte closed Millbrae Holistic and started BALCO as a sport supplement company in neighboring Burlingame. Investing in an ICP spectrometer, Conte used his knowledge of nutrition, largely self-taught, to devise a system of testing athletes for mineral deficiencies in order to maintain a perfect balance of minerals in the body. Through regular urine and blood testing, Conte would monitor and treat mineral shortages in athletes, supposedly elevating their level of physical wellness dramatically. Surviving his divorce from Aubry and several years of financial hardships, BALCO did not achieve professional success until the summer of 1996 with the addition of NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski to its client list. From there Conte began acquiring additional high-profile athletes with his special concoction of undetectable drugs, manufactured by rogue Illinois chemist Patrick Arnold and distributed by personal trainer Greg Anderson.[1]

Drugs distributed

Arnold created a wide range of substances, that when used in a cycle could go relatively undetected by drug testing, even on the Olympic level. Five different types of drugs along with mineral supplements were used to achieve optimum results. Types of drugs include erythropoietin, human growth hormone, modafinil, testosterone cream, and tetrahydrogestrinone. Erythropoietin or EPO is a hormone naturally produced by the kidneys that stimulates erythropoiesis. Originally used to treat anemia, when artificially introduced to the body EPO stimulates an increased production of red blood cells enhancing the body's ability to transport oxygen. Human growth hormone is secreted by the anterior pituitary and is generally anabolic. In theory, this hormone builds muscle mass although some studies suggest it has no effect on building muscle mass to a degree that would benefit athletes. Modafinil is a mild stimulant designed to be taken right before competition in order to sharpen an athlete’s senses and performance. Legally marketed as a treatment for narcolepsy and sleep disorders, modafinil is not regarded as a high risk drug by athletic governing bodies but is still banned from competition. Testosterone Cream or "The Cream" is a salve that when rubbed on the body introduces testosterone, trimming body fat and building muscle. Though less effective than testosterone injections, "The Cream" was widely used because it didn’t cause a significant rise in normal testosterone levels when scrutinized by a drug test. Tetrahydrogestrinone, THG, or "The Clear," is a designer anabolic steroid that affects the user like other anabolic steroids, making muscles bigger and stronger. THG was the main steroid distributed by BALCO with the other products more of a regimen to heighten its effects according to an individual athlete's body.[2]

BALCO investigation

Conte, Arnold and Anderson continued selling these substances undetected from 1988 until 2002 when the official federal investigation of BALCO began. Parallel with this investigation, the USADA began its own covert investigation of Conte and his operation. In the summer of 2003, USADA investigators received a syringe with trace amounts of a mysterious substance. The anonymous tipster was Trevor Graham, sprint coach to Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.

The syringe went to Don Catlin, MD, the founder and then-director of the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, who had developed a testing process for the substance, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). [3] Later that year, the Chicago Tribune named Catlin Sportsman of the Year.[4]

He tested 550 existing samples from athletes, of which 20 proved to be positive for THG. [3]

Athletes including Kelli White, British sprinter Dwain Chambers, shot putter Kevin Toth, middle distance runner Regina Jacobs, and hammer throwers John McEwen and Melissa Price were subsequently incriminated in the investigation.[5]

Jason Giambi

The former American League MVP and current player for the Cleveland Indians allegedly admitted to steroid use as well as HGH use in front of a grand jury in December 2003. Jason Giambi first became connected with BALCO after inquiring with Greg Anderson about Barry Bonds' training regimen. The much publicized leak of court documents which were said to contain this admission led to a tarnishing of Giambi's career, yet because he never actually failed a drug test, Giambi has, thus far, avoided punishment from Major League Baseball. Giambi subsequently made a few apologies to the media, the most direct of which may have come on May 16, 2007, when he told USA Today, "I was wrong for using that stuff...what we should have done a long time ago was stand up — players, ownership, everybody - and said 'we made a mistake.'" His younger brother Jeremy, a fellow major leaguer and former teammate of Giambi's on the Oakland A's, was also involved in receiving supplements from BALCO, and has admitted to using steroids during his career.[6]

Barry Bonds

The former San Francisco Giants outfielder, who holds the major league records for home runs in both a single season and a career, has been the face of steroids in sports despite never being caught explicitly and steadfastly denying any allegations against him. Bonds' many detractors point to his large increase in size late in his career, as well as his improvement primarily in his power numbers, despite his age. Bonds' trainer, Greg Anderson, was sentenced to jail time after refusing to testify against Bonds before a grand jury investigating the slugger for perjury. Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle, profiled Bonds' use of performance enhancing substances in their 2006 book Game of Shadows. The reporters used Bonds' testimony in front of a grand jury as their most damning evidence, and refused to reveal their source for the court documents. The U.S. government sought charges against them for leaking the testimony, but dropped them when a former attorney for Conte pled guilty to doing so. Despite all this, Bonds, like Giambi, has never been punished by the MLB in any way because he has not yet failed any drug test.[7]

On November 15, 2007, Bonds was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice based on his grand jury testimony in this investigation. The trial began on March 21, 2011;[8] and he was convicted on April 13, 2011, on the charge of obstruction of justice.[9][10]

Marion Jones

Marion Jones is a track and field athlete who won five medals, three gold, at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Jones attended the University of North Carolina on a basketball scholarship, but eventually shifted her focus solely to track. It was there she met shot-putter and then UNC coach C.J. Hunter, whom she married in 1998 and eventually divorced in 2002. A former world champion, Hunter, also involved with BALCO, was caught using performance enhancing drugs and disgraced. The publicity surrounding this led many to believe Jones herself used such drugs as well, an accusation she vehemently denied over and over again. Jones then began a relationship with American sprinter Tim Montgomery, leading to the birth of a son. Montgomery himself benefited from the banned substances he received from BALCO (in fact he, as well as both Jones and Hunter, can still be seen posing with Conte in photos on his SNAC website[11]), and the one-time 100 meter dash record holder has been stripped of his awards and records since admitting to steroid use, and is now retired. After news of Montgomery's cheating broke, Jones was again faced with increased doubt as to the integrity of her career, yet she continued to deny any wrongdoing. Finally, in October 2007, Jones admitted to lying to federal agents about her use of performance enhancing drugs, though she still maintains she believed the substances she was using were flaxseed oil, not steroids, at the time. Jones has handed over the five Olympic medals she earned in Sydney and officially retired from the sport.

Bill Romanowski

The most notable football player to be involved in the BALCO scandal is two-time All-Pro linebacker Bill Romanowski. The 16-year NFL veteran openly advertised Conte's zinc supplement ZMA, and his involvement with BALCO has only further tainted the career of the four-time Super Bowl champion.

Media coverage of scandal

The media coverage of the BALCO case has been extremely extensive. The San Francisco Chronicle, and more specifically Chronicle journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, have played a prominent role in covering the story; ultimately collaborating in Game of Shadows, a book chronicling the BALCO scandal.

Fainaru-Wada and Williams broke the story concerning U.S. track coach Trevor Graham and his admission to turning a syringe laced with THG over to investigators. That syringe was the catalyst for the entire investigation of Conte’s lab. These journalists also wrote the story about C.J. Hunter (Marion Jones’ ex-husband) and his interview with an IRS agent, in which Hunter told the agents that Jones was taking performance-enhancing drugs during the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Hunter said that at times, he injected the drugs into Jones himself. He also admitted to taking steroids, and said that he had obtained them through Conte.

The duo’s most groundbreaking story, however, was their report on October 16, 2004, of a secret audio conversation that contained Greg Anderson (Barry Bonds’ trainer) stating that Bonds had been using steroids provided by Victor Conte and himself. Anderson also revealed the names of numerous Olympic athletes that had been provided with "The Clear", boasting that neither they nor Bonds would test positively on a drug test because the substance was undetectable.

After reporting on the BALCO case, Fainaru-Wada and Williams took their interviews and observations and published Game of Shadows, a journalistic book that explored every aspect of BALCO, beginning with Conte’s early struggles as an aspiring musician and ending with the federal bust of the BALCO headquarters. Publicly, most of the attention the book received was due to the incriminating evidence of Barry Bond’s ties to BALCO.

They begin by telling of young Victor Conte. He was aspiring musician (and hippie, and alleged drug dealer), but those dreams were quickly dashed. So, undaunted, he decided to open his own health clinic. That idea crashed as well, but the third time was a charm for Conte. He decided that he wanted to become a nutritionist and help star athletes to reach their physical potential. Despite not having a background in chemistry, Conte quickly gained respect among athletes and nutrition buffs.

Fainaru-Wada and Williams then delve into the many different schemes by which the drugs were distributed to these high profile athletes. Trips to Mexico, suspicious address names, and steroids disguised as flaxseed oil were a few among many ways in which the drugs got to the athletes. From there, the book goes on to name the many athletes who received the drugs, and the writers go into great detail describing their thoughts on Barry Bonds. They believed that Bonds was a superior athlete, but was jealous of all the attention that Mark McGwire received in his record-breaking season of 1998. Bonds was jealous, they hypothesized, because McGwire was a suspected "juicer" and the Giants’ slugger wanted to prove that he could compete on a level equal to or exceeding that of McGwire.

Impact of BALCO scandal

The BALCO scandal has had a very large impact on sports as a whole, and most noticeably, baseball. Prior to the scandal, every major sport except baseball had a policy against steroids. As a result of the BALCO bust, Major League Baseball commissioner, Bud Selig, instituted a written, league-wide policy. The first time a player tests positive for steroids, he is subject to a 50 game (about 1/3 of a regular season) suspension. For the second offense, the penalty is a 100 (about 2/3 of a regular season) game suspension. Finally, if a third offense occurs, the player is given a lifetime ban from Major League Baseball. This policy compares favorably with the NFL’s policy. A first offense in the NFL gets a minimum 4 game suspension (1/4 of a regular season). A second offense gets a minimum of 8 games, and a third gets a suspension of at least one calendar year. All of these penalties are without pay. Despite this new steroid policy, the MLB has faced ridicule because its steroid testing policies are still far more lax than those in almost any other sport.

BALCO today

Technically speaking, BALCO is extinct, but Victor Conte is a free man and still running a business called "Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning" or "SNAC." After serving a four-month prison sentence prior to pleading guilty in 2005, he no longer sells illegal steroids, but various supplements and vitamins. Patrick Arnold and Greg Anderson each served a three-month jail sentence after pleading guilty with Anderson serving an additional three-month house arrest sentence. Recently Anderson was incarcerated again after being found in contempt of court for refusing to testify about Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield’s use of banned steroids.[12] BALCO is not completely dead however; on the SNAC website, Conte has BALCO apparel for sale.[13]

See also


  1. ^ a b Fainaru-Wada, Mark, and Lance Williams. Game Of Shadows. 2006.
  2. ^ Davidson, Keay (2011-06-24). "Drugs involved in BALCO case". The San Francisco Chronicle. 
  3. ^ a b Catlin to Leave Testing Field for New Research Position, Washington Post [1]
  4. ^ "Milestones in Don Catlin's Career". 2007-02-28. Retrieved 2012-04-11. 
  5. ^ "BALCO investigation timeline". USA Today. 2007-11-27. 
  6. ^ Fainaru-Wada, Mark; Williams, Lance (2011-06-24). "Giambi admitted taking steroids". The San Francisco Chronicle. 
  7. ^ Williams, Lance; Fainaru-Wada, Mark (2011-06-24). "Bonds' trainer going to prison". The San Francisco Chronicle. 
  8. ^ Elias, Paul (2011-03-21). "Barry Bonds perjury trial gets under way". Associated Press. Retrieved 2011-03-21. 
  9. ^ "Barry Bonds convicted of obstruction of justice in performance-enhancing-drugs case".  
  10. ^ "Barry Bonds found guilty of obstruction".  
  11. ^ "SNAC Athlete Photo Gallery - SNAC System". Retrieved 18 August 2013. 
  12. ^ "Greg Anderson held in contempt, returned to jail - MLB". 2006-08-29. Retrieved 2012-04-11. 
  13. ^ "Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning". Retrieved 2012-04-11.