BALCO Founder Victor Conte Back at His Lab BALCO founder Victor Conte, a key figure in the largest U.S. doping scandal, spent four months in prison. He's back now, selling nutritional supplements.
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BALCO Founder Victor Conte Back at His Lab

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BALCO Founder Victor Conte Back at His Lab

BALCO Founder Victor Conte Back at His Lab

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NPR's Tom Goldman has been following the steroid story. And he says, Giambi's use of performance-enhancing drugs is pretty well known.

TOM GOLDMAN: Well, according to testimony leaked several years ago to the San Francisco Chronicle, Giambi told a grand injury investigating the BALCO doping scandal that he had used human growth hormone and steroids. And just recently, he told the USA Today, I was wrong for doing that stuff.

BLOCK: Tom, you mentioned BALCO there. That's the lab in California that's been at the center of this doping scandal founded by a man named Victor Conte. You just spent some time with him on a reporting trip.

GOLDMAN: I did. Victor Conte spent four months in prison and four months home confinement after pleading guilty to illegally distributing anabolic steroids in the BALCO scandal. His sentence ended last July. He's back in the nutritional supplement business. It's a legal business and he began that in 1984.

Now at his office just south of the San Francisco Airport, the sign outside says SNAC, Scientific Nutrition and for Advance Conditioning. The BALCO signs, interestingly, are gone. He says too many tourists were stopping by doing muscle poses and snapping photos and too many TV reporters doing their stand-ups in front of those signs.

But as we're about to hear in the following story, inside the office's glass doors, BALCO seems to be very much alive.

Mr. VICTOR CONTE (Owner, Scientific Nutrition and Advance Conditioning): How you doing? Welcome to the BALCO hall of fame or shame, depending upon your viewpoint, and our small museum.

GOLDMAN: Victor Conte enters the lobby wearing dark cargo pants and a loose-fitting red shirt. His thinning hair is slicked back, his mustache, pencil thin. If Conte think this is the hall of shame, he doesn't led on as he proudly points out his autographed photos of some of the world's top athletes.

Mr. CONTE: Barry Bonds, Ronnie Coleman, eight-time body building champion. This is ZMA track team and Kelli White and Dwain Chambers, and Chryste Gaines.

GOLDMAN: 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, are about 25 bottles of ZMA. The nutritional supplemental 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 be an offering of visible proof that he's back and legal.

Mr. CONTE: I will never ever do anything involving illegal performance-enhancing substances again. And the simple reason is as I would never subject my family members to what they went through again. I'm telling you, that is a past life for me.

GOLDMAN: Giving banned drugs to athletes may be in the past, but talking about drugs? Anytime, anywhere. He 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.

Mr. CONTE: There needs to be a change in where the spotlight is. The spotlight should be taken off the athletes. In many cases, I believe they're victims. 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.

GOLDMAN: And so I entered the world of Victor Conte. He leans forward, at times a vein in his neck bulges, and says that his case was part of a propaganda campaign. Anti-doping authorities, the government, the media, he says, inflated Conte's wrongdoing as a way to divert attention from the deeper problems of doping.

Mr. CONTE: I'm the Adolf Hitler of sports, someone attempting to create a new race of athletes, painting the picture of that, you know, I'm going to go to prison for 30 years.

GOLDMAN: BALCO was a very big deal for 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 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 around the world. The 30-foot shark everyone was after, 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. They lied, he says. They leaked wrong information and were just as guilty of wrongdoing as the athletes and BALCO officials like himself caught up in doping.

Mr. CONTE: This entire case in my mind is about cheating to win. It's what it's about.

GOLDMAN: Here's this guy who broke the law, he went to jail. Why do we believe you?

Mr. CONTE: You're a liar until you become exposed. Okay? And then you tell the truth.

GOLDMAN: Has Barry Bonds ever taken banned performance-enhancing drugs?

Mr. CONTE: I have no knowledge of this. None.

GOLDMAN: If Conte was a 30-foot shark in the BALCO case, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds is the great whale. A grand jury is investigating whether Bonds lied when he allegedly said several years ago under oath that he didn't knowingly take banned steroids. In a previous magazine interview, Conte said he gave drugs to Bonds' long-time trainer Greg Anderson, but didn't know what Anderson did with them.

Anderson currently is in jail for refusing to testify about Bonds.

Mr. CONTE: Should there be some suspicion? Absolutely. Can I say, you know, that Barry Bonds did not use drugs? I can't say that because I don't know that.

GOLDMAN: Conte says he provided Bonds with a complex nutritional program and that Bonds worked extremely hard in the gym. When asked if he is once again working with Bonds, Conte says, there've 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 the stage. It was three years ago when he was a professional musician playing bass for Tower of Power and Herbie Hancock. It was true when he helped fueled illegally the world's best athletes. And it's true now.

Conte leads me back down the hallway to the main office where his 22-year-old daughter Veronica has opened up a Web site on her computer, promoting an upcoming body building competition.

Mr. CONTE: Participants scroll up a little bit, Veronica, so you can see this, the Flex Wheeler Classic, and obviously, there'll be a VIP seminar with a Q&A section but you look at what they, as a drawing card.

GOLDMAN: You got top billing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: 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 with the mention of that and reminds me that his fame or infamy has now stretched to four years. Considering that he wants to, in his words, help sort out where we go from here on the doping issue, Victor Conte may yet squeeze even more out of those 15 minutes.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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