Drug Agency Tells of Steroid Scheme by U.S. Athletes
By JERE LONGMAN
previously undetected steroid has been identified and a new test indicates that as many as a half-dozen athletes in track and field have recently used the performance-enhancing drug, American drug-testing officials said yesterday.
That is considered a significant number of athletes from one country in a single sport, and would constitute the biggest drug scandal to hit track and field since the Canadian Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal for 100 meters at the 1988 Summer Olympics after testing positive for a steroid.
“I know of no other drug bust that is larger than this,” Terry Madden, chief executive of the United States Anti-Doping Agency, an independent group that conducts drug testing for Olympic-related sports, said in a conference call with reporters yesterday.
A tip from an unnamed track coach during the summer led to the identification of the steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, Madden said. A test was developed to identify THG, which was not previously detectable in urine samples taken from athletes. Madden declined to identify the athletes or the specific number of positive tests.
But two officials familiar with the results said that a half-dozen positive tests for THG had been recorded from urine samples collected at the United States track and field championships last June, and from samples collected out of competition by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
The athletes have been notified, Madden said, and a standard review and appeals process could take months. Athletes who are eventually sanctioned for steroid use face a two-year ban and would be barred from the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens.
“What we have uncovered appears to be intentional doping of the worst sort,” Madden said in a statement yesterday. “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 using what they developed to be undetectable designer steroids to defraud their fellow competitors and the American and world public who pay to attend sports events.”
During the summer, a high-profile track coach called the anti-doping agency and provided names of American and international athletes who he said were using an undetectable steroid, Madden said. A syringe containing the substance, later identified as THG, was provided by the coach, Madden said.
The coach said the source of the steroid was Victor Conte, who is president of a nutritional supplements company called the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or Balco, in Burlingame, Calif., according to Madden, who told reporters that he himself was “fairly certain” that the THG came from Conte.
Attempts to reach Conte last night were unsuccessful. In a statement to The San Jose Mercury News, Conte denied that Balco had been the source of the steroid. He also said that there was no proof that THG was a steroid and produced prohibited performance-enhancing effects.
“In my opinion, this is about jealous competitive coaches and athletes that have a history of promoting and using performance-enhancing agents being completely hypocritical in their actions,” Conte said in his statement to the newspaper. “As many will soon find out, the world of track and field is a very dirty business, and this goes far beyond just the coaches and athletes.”
Dr. Don Catlin, who operates the Olympic drug-testing lab at U.C.L.A., developed the test to identify THG, breaking the chemical code of the substance and synthesizing it after receiving the steroid from the American anti-doping agency on June 13. He called it a landmark case.
“An opportunity like this never came up before, where someone finds a syringe, and all of our chemical expertise can be brought to bear on a single problem ? a new chemical entity that’s never been seen before,” Catlin said in a telephone interview. “It’s a needle-in-a-haystack analogy.”
While there is no literature published on THG, Catlin said, his expertise in pharmacology and chemistry places it in the steroid family. “I can say it’s going to have an effect,” he said, referring to anabolic properties.
What is not yet known is whether users of the substance will turn out to include high-profile athletes from other sports, including baseball and football. Madden said that because the THG case indicated potentially illegal distribution of a controlled substance, his agency had notified the federal Justice Department.
In early September, Balco’s offices were raided by the Internal Revenue Service, in coordination with the Food and Drug Administration and the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force, according to many reports in the Northern California news media.
Two days later, agents also searched the home of Greg Anderson, who is a personal trainer for the baseball slugger Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.
A spokesman for the I.R.S. said yesterday that it was aware of the anti-doping agency’s statements, but could not comment. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Tuesday that Balco was being investigated by a federal grand jury in San Francisco. It also quoted Bonds’s agent, Scott Boras, as saying that the case “really doesn’t involve” Bonds.
One athlete with ties to Balco who has come under scrutiny by drug-testing officials is the sprinter Kelli White, who won the 100 and 200 meters at the world track and field championships in Paris in August, but who tested positive for the narcolepsy drug modafinil. The substance is considered a mild stimulant by track officials, and White faces the loss of her gold medals as well as $120,000 in prize money.