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'Intentional Doping of the Worst Sort' Found Among U.S. Track Athletes

October 17, 2003|Alan Abrahamson and Elliott Teaford | Times Staff Writers

United States anti-doping authorities said Thursday they had uncovered widespread use by track and field athletes this summer of a new and previously undetected designer steroid, linking its development and distribution to a Bay Area nutritional supplement laboratory already under investigation by a federal grand jury in San Francisco.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees drug testing for all sports federations under the U.S. Olympic umbrella, said an anonymous tipster who provided a sample of a steroid called tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, identified Victor Conte, founder of Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative, or BALCO, as the source of the new drug.

The investigation began in June and has been expanded to some professional sports, said Terry Madden, chief executive of the USADA.

After developing tests to detect THG, the drug agency authorized retesting of about 550 urine samples, resulting in an unknown number of positive tests. The athletes who tested positive, who were unnamed, could face suspensions that would keep them from competing in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Madden declined to provide specific numbers but said, "I know of no other drug bust that is larger than this involving the number of athletes involved. What we have uncovered appears to be intentional doping of the worst sort.

"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 sporting events."

Conte, responding in an e-mail to several Bay Area newspapers, disputed the agency's findings.

"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 said in the e-mail. "As many will soon find out, the world of track and field is a very dirty business and this goes far beyond the coaches and athletes."

Conte is a self-described nutritionist, and his company provides blood-testing services for many top athletes, including baseball star Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants and Olympic sprint champion Marion Jones.

Agents from the Internal Revenue Service, the Food and Drug Administration, the San Mateo County Narcotics Task Force and Olympic drug testing officials raided the Burlingame offices of BALCO on Sept. 3. Two days later, agents searched the home of Greg Anderson, personal trainer for Bonds.

Conte said in Thursday's e-mail that THG is not an anabolic steroid and added that it is not a controlled substance or banned by any sports governing body.

"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."

The USADA's Madden said THG's chemical structure is similar to the banned anabolic steroids gestrinome and trenbolone. THG is not on a list of banned substances in track and field but would be a related substance outlawed under the sport's anti-doping rules.

"This is a serious warning for cheaters," said Dick Pound, chairman of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "It shows that supposedly undetectable substances can be detected as new tests are developed."

USA Track & Field said in a statement issued Thursday that it "lauded" the USADA's work, adding that "all those responsible for drugs in sports, including supplement laboratories, chemists, coaches and athletes, should be held accountable for their actions."

The USADA was created three years ago, in large part because of concerns that the U.S. Olympic Committee could not properly oversee drug testing. USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said Thursday's announcement showed the wisdom of outsourcing U.S. anti-doping policies to an independent agency.

"We created USADA to be a leader in the fight against doping in Olympic sport," he said. "There is no issue of greater importance to the USOC and the Olympic movement, and their effort underscores the commitment we've made."

Anabolic steroids are derivatives of the male hormone testosterone that help build muscles by altering hormone balances.

Because of steroids' performance-enhancing qualities, most sports federations ban their use and enforce that ban through drug testing. The tests measure the compounds of drugs by their molecular weight. Adjusting the molecular structure makes the "new" steroids undetectable until the substance is identified independently.

The USADA said it first learned of what it later identified as THG in early June, when someone it referred to only as a "high-profile track and field coach" telephoned the agency to provide the names of U.S. and international athletes using an undetectable new drug.

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