Blowing the Whistle on Drugs: A Raid on a California Laboratory Threatens to Blemish America's Athletes-Again

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Starr

It is America's dirty little secret (actually not so very secret): there is an epidemic of performance-enhancing drugs at the heart of our sports culture. Fans know it intuitively, from the bulked-up athletes whose heft dwarfs those of prior generations to the obliteration of longstanding records. Insiders make a compelling case that illegal substances--steroids, human growth hormone and others--have propelled many of the historic achievements of this era, from our most popular pro sports to virtually every Olympic venue.

Now a burgeoning scandal involving a small "high-tech nutrition" company that boasts a large roster of big-name athletes as clients may provide a window into the problem. Last month in California, multiple federal agencies raided the facilities of Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) and went on to confiscate containers of steroids, human growth hormone and synthetic testosterone from an off-site storage facility. As a result, a grand jury in San Francisco has subpoenaed some 40 athletes--reportedly including baseball superstars Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, several NFL players and Olympic queen Marion Jones--to testify about what BALCO has to offer. "This has the potential to explode into the biggest doping scandal ever to hit our shores," says Charles Yesalis, coeditor of "Performance-Enhancing Substances in Sport and Exercise."

None of the athletes appears to be a target of the current investigation, and the handful who have acknowledged receiving a subpoena have denied any wrongdoing. But all are reportedly BALCO customers. Bonds has sung the praises of its program to a fitness magazine, an endorsement the company featured on its Web site. The home of Bonds's personal trainer was raided at the same time as the police action against BALCO.

The federal investigation was launched after a track coach sent a used syringe containing what he said was a new "designer steroid" to the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), an independent body formed three years ago to police this country's Olympic sports. The anonymous whistle-blower indicated that the compound--tetrahydrogestrinone (THG)--was similar to other banned steroids, but altered to make it undetectable with existing tests. And he pinpointed BALCO as its source. An attorney for BALCO's owner, Victor Conte, denied that the company provided steroids to athletes. In an e-mail to the San Francisco Chronicle, Conte, a former bass player with the '70s rock group Tower of Power, blamed the investigation on "jealous competitive coaches and athletes."

The USADA sent the syringe to the International Olympic Committee's accredited testing laboratory at UCLA. Lab chief Dr. Don Caitlin confirmed that the compound was THG and developed a test that could detect the steroid in urine samples. …