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spooky
Oct 17th, 2003, 08:37 PM
Posted on Fri, Oct. 17, 2003

Steroid conspiracy alleged
By Pete Carey and Mark Emmons
Mercury News

The agency that polices the use of banned drugs by athletes said Thursday it had uncovered the biggest conspiracy yet of athletes and coaches to use a ``designer'' steroid drug tailored to escape detection, and it said a Burlingame sports laboratory was involved.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said several athletes who competed at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Stanford University in June have tested positive for the drug and, as a result, could be barred from competition for two years, including the 2004 Olympics.

The agency's chief executive, Terry Madden, would not name the athletes or say how many tested positive. He said the agency believes that international athletes also are involved.

The agency is an independent organization dedicated to eliminating banned drugs in sports and is the anti-doping agency for Olympic sports in the United States. Anabolic steroids are controlled substances that some athletes use to build body mass and boost athletic performance. They are not only banned from use in sports but also are illegal without a doctor's prescription.

``What we have uncovered appears to be international doping of the worst sort,'' Madden said in a statement Thursday. ``This is a far cry from athletes accidentally testing positive as a result of taking contaminated nutritional supplements. Rather, this is a conspiracy involving chemists, coaches and certain athletes.''

The agency said some athletes at the Stanford meet also tested positive for a narcolepsy drug, modafinil, a mild stimulant that has no chemical link to steroids. Modafinil is the drug that Union City sprinter Kelli White tested positive for at this summer's world championships in Paris, jeopardizing the two gold medals she won.

The anti-doping agency said it is ``fairly certain'' that a single sample of the stealthy designer drug that was determined to be a steroid called tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, came from Balco Laboratories of Burlingame, a sports nutrition center that is the target of a federal investigation. The agency said it had informed the U.S. Justice Department of its finding.

``We are not sure of their exact role,'' Madden said. ``There may have been many other people involved. There could have been chemists involved'' that the agency is not identifying, he said.

Balco's president, Victor Conte, denied the allegation and said he was not the source of the drug. He blamed the accusation on jealous competitors. As part of the nutritional programs it provides, the company uses an advanced mass spectrometer to analyze the blood and urine of its athlete clients for trace elements and minerals.

A sister company, SNAC System, sells a nutritional supplement that it says raises testosterone levels naturally, building muscle and strength.

Balco was searched Sept. 3 by agents from the Internal Revenue Service and the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force. Agents took athletes' medical files and Balco financial records. Two days later, agents also searched the home of Greg Anderson, the personal trainer of Giants left fielder Barry Bonds. Anderson could not be reached for comment.

Conte said that he has heard from athletes that about 40 of them from across the country have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury starting work Thursday.

The lab lists many famous athletes as clients, from Bonds to Olympic sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery to Oakland Raider Bill Romanowski. Madden said the Anti-Doping Agency has provided information about its findings to professional and international sports organizations.

Conte denied that the substance is an anabolic steroid or any kind of controlled or illegal substance. ``USADA has been reporting that the agent is a controlled substance and illegal and that is just simply not true,'' he said. ``There is not a single shred of scientific information published on this substance,'' he said. ``Just because it may be structurally similar does not mean that it has anabolic effects.

``In my opinion, this is about jealous competitive coaches and athletes that all have a history of promoting and using performance-enhancing agents being completely hypocritical in their actions.'' Conte predicted the public soon would learn that track and field is a ``dirty business'' involving more than just athletes and coaches.

The path the drug took to discovery was filled with intrigue.

An anonymous coach

The agency learned of the new drug when an anonymous coach express-mailed a sample in a used syringe to it early this summer. In a telephone call, the coach claimed it came from Balco. The drug's structure was analyzed by the Olympic drug testing center at the University of California-Los Angeles. The center identified it as THG, a previously unknown drug related to two banned steroids, gestrinone and trenbolone. The drug's structure had been changed so that it could avoid detection by standard tests.

``They chemically tweak it, barely changing the molecule and making it an undetectable steroid unless we get our hands on it,'' Madden said. Then a few drops of the drug are placed beneath the athlete's tongue with a syringe.

Once the drug was identified, the agency had UCLA re-examine 350 urine samples given by athletes at the June track meet. It also tested 100 track and field athletes out of competition and 100 non-track athletes. Those 550 tests produced several positives for THG.

In a typical testing, he said, 1 percent to 1.5 percent of the group would test positive -- five or six athletes.

Confirming results

The athletes who tested positive for THG have been notified, Madden said. He refused to describe them, other than to say all the positive tests so far have involved track and field competitors. A second sample will be tested to confirm the first positive test, followed by an appeal process.

Now that a test has been devised for the drug, it is detectable for only a week or so after a dose, while it continues influencing performance for a long period of time, he said.

Madden said his agency has not spoken with Conte.

The USA Track & Field issued a statement praising the agency: ``We strongly believe that all those responsible for drugs in sport, including supplement laboratories, chemists, coaches and athletes, should be held accountable for their actions.''

Agents for several prominent athletes listed on Balco's Web site did not return calls.

Kelli White, whom Conte lists as a member of his ZMA Track Club, was unavailable for comment. Her East Bay coach, Remi Korchemny, said he is unaware of any investigation of steroids and claimed ``there is no ZMA Track Club.'' Korchemny said, ``I used Balco as a nutrition company. I get vitamins and ZMA from them. But that's it.''

ZMA is a nutritional supplement sold by another Conte company, SNAC System.

Bonds' agent, Scott Boras, also did not return calls for comment. But a few weeks ago, when first informed of the raid at Balco, Boras said he would be advising Bonds not to discuss the lab or Conte. ``I wouldn't want to be commenting on somebody under federal investigation,'' Boras said. ``Would you?''