Tom Goldman, NPR
Victor Conte points to a photo of his former star client, Barry Bonds. Conte says he has no knowledge of whether Bonds ever used banned performance-enhancing drugs.
From the outside, it's not "BALCO" anymore. Victor Conte took down the signs that read, "Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative." Too many tourists were stopping by, doing muscle poses and snapping photos. Too many TV reporters were doing standups.
But inside the nondescript building near the San Francisco airport, BALCO lives.
BALCO is the California lab at the center of the sports doping scandal in which several of pro sports' biggest names have been implicated, including New York Yankees star Jason Giambi and San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.
Conte, who founded BALCO, served four months in prison and four months of home confinement for illegally distributing anabolic steroids. His sentence ended last July. Now he's back in the nutritional supplement business — a legal business which he began in 1984.
Hall of Fame ... Or Shame?
Entering the lobby of the BALCO building, Conte says, "Welcome to the BALCO Hall of Fame — or shame — depending on your viewpoint."
Conte is wearing dark cargo pants and a loose-fitting red shirt. His thinning hair is slicked back, his moustache is pencil thin. If Conte thinks this is a hall of shame, he doesn't let on, as he proudly points out his autographed photos of some of the world's top athletes.
"Barry Bonds, Ronnie Coleman ... eight-time body-building champion," Conte says. "This is the ZMA track team with Kelli White and Dwayne Chambers, and Christie Gaines."
White, Chambers and Gaines were sanctioned for using banned drugs. Others in this tour of signed photos and jerseys also were busted with substances provided by Conte. They included human growth hormone, the oxygen-boosting drug EPO, and a previously undetectable steroid, THG, known as "The Clear."
The short walk through the lobby and down a narrow hallway leaves a visitor wondering how Conte can seem so upbeat about this array of athletes who cheated. Perhaps anticipating this, Conte turns into a conference room, where — on display, stacked in a pyramid — there are about 25 bottles of ZMA. The nutritional supplement was the backbone of his business long before he went down the slippery slope of banned drugs, as he puts it. And now, after prison, the stack of ZMA seems to offer visible proof that Conte is back — and legal.
"I will never, ever do anything involving illegal performance-enhancing substances again," he says. "And the simple reason is, I would never subject my family members to what they went through again. I'm telling you, that is a past life for me."
Giving banned drugs to athletes may be in the past, but talking about drugs? Anytime, anywhere. Conte doesn't condone the use of banned substances.
"It is what it is," Conte says. At his minimum-security prison in California, he led a steroid debate in which he defended the athletes who dope. Now, back in his office, he does the same thing.
"There needs to be a change in where the spotlight is," he says. "And it needs to be put upon the Olympic governing body officials, the owners of the teams, and the players' union executives ... who've had full knowledge of the rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs for 50 years."
The Face of the Doping Scandal
This is the world of Victor Conte. He leans forward, a vein in his neck bulging at times, and he says that his case was part of a propaganda campaign. Anti-doping authorities, the government, the media, Conte says, inflated his wrongdoing as a way to divert attention from the deeper problems of doping.
"I'm the Adolf Hitler of sport — someone attempting to create a new race of athletes," he says. "Painting a picture like I'm going to prison for 30 years."
BALCO was a very big deal to the government, and Conte was the face of the scandal. Announcing the indictments of Conte and three other men back in 2004, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said, "The tragedy of so-called performance-enhancing drugs is that they foster the lie that excellence can be bought, rather than earned."
The BALCO scandal set off a grand jury investigation that took testimony from some of the world's most famous athletes. And BALCO educated this country about doping.
But after all the focus on Conte, his part of the story ended with a whimper. He calls his four-month prison sentence "the wrist slap heard 'round the world." The 30-foot shark everyone was chasing, he says, ended up being a two-inch minnow.
Conte likes to gloat about that resolution. And it fuels his anger about what he says were serious improprieties by law-enforcement officials and the media involved in his case. He says they lied, they leaked wrong information and were just as guilty of wrongdoing as the athletes and BALCO officials, like himself, caught up in doping.
The Bonds Question
The most famous athlete alleged to have been involved in the scandal is, of course, Barry Bonds. Asked whether Bonds has ever taken banned performance-enhancing drugs, Conte replies, "I have no knowledge of this. None."
If Conte is the 30-foot shark in the BALCO case, then Bonds is the great whale. A grand jury is investigating whether Bonds lied when he allegedly said under oath several years ago that he didn't knowingly take banned steroids. In a previous magazine interview, Conte said he gave drugs to Bonds' longtime trainer, Greg Anderson. But he said he didn't know what Anderson did with them. Anderson is currently in jail for refusing to testify about Bonds.
"Should there be some suspicion?" Conte asks. "Absolutely. Can I say, you know, that Barry Bonds did not use drugs? I can't say that, because I don't know that."
Conte says he provided Bonds with a complex nutritional program, and that Bonds worked extremely hard in the gym. When asked whether he is once again working with Bonds, Conte says, "There have been people that come by to pick up boxes of supplement for a designated baseball player. And we'll just leave it at that."
Conte calls himself one of the smaller players in the sport nutrition industry. But he's still never far from a stage. It was true years ago when he was a professional musician, playing bass for the Tower of Power and Herbie Hancock. It was true when he helped fuel the world's best athletes — legally. And it's true now.
A recent newspaper article on Conte's life after prison ended with the line, "So long, Victor Conte. Your 15 minutes are up."
He laughs at the mention of that, and says his fame, or infamy, has now stretched to four years. Considering that he wants to help sort out where we go from here on the doping issue, Conte may yet squeeze even more out of those 15 minutes.