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Victor Conte, Other Sports and Boxing's Trust Issues

(Victor Conte)
(Victor Conte)


Writer’s note: The world of anti-doping is not as simple as being comprised of cheaters and the people who catch them. Between those two diametrically opposed forces are the suppliers, various administrators, lab techs, sample collectors, sports leagues, athletic commissions and all the politics and corruption you can stomach.
 
To some, doping is not a moral issue. “Let ’em juice,” some fans have told me. “It’ll make the games more exciting.”
 

On a certain level, I understand that. I’m not a baseball fan. Never cared for the sport, really. So the Barry Bonds/BALCO/Victor Conte/73 home runs scandal never hit home with me. I don’t care about stats in a game that had its most coveted record living with an asterisk next to it for decades.


I love track and field and I grew up believing the times run were won by hard work and natural speed. And still, I’ll be honest; knowing this sport, like cycling, is populated with cheaters doesn’t fill me with moral outrage.
 
I am sympathetic to NFL players who bang up their bodies week after week and year after year. That league and its drug problems present a slippery slope. Do you allow recovery drugs to athletes in desperate need each week? A question best answered another time in another article.
 
While I believe a day of anti-doping reckoning will one day come for the NBA, again, the risk is for the cheater being exposed as a medically assisted fraud. No one got killed getting dunked on.
 
Then there is doping in combat sports.
 
Both MMA and boxing are different than every other sport in the world. They require stamina uncommon to baseball, basketball or even cycling. No one is punching those players in the face and body for three minutes at a time. A fighter using a blood doping agent like EPO, which would increase red blood count thus endurance, would be and has been very effective in boxing.
 
The general consensus of our sport is that PEDs don’t work because the cheaters generally lose. That is simply not true.
 
Shane Mosley prepared for his rematch with Oscar De la Hoya by using EPO and BALCO’s the “cream” and the “clear.” He came back strong in the back end of the fight to win.
 
Lamont Peterson admittedly had synthetic testosterone in his system when he defeated Amir Khan.
 
James Toney tested positive for a PED after beating John Ruiz for a heavyweight title.
 
Mickey Bey knocked Robert Rodriguez out in three rounds before tests revealed he had a 30:1 T/E ratio, the second highest in Nevada state history.
 
And those are just a few of the combatants who didn’t have a therapeutic usage exemption (TUE) for PEDs.
 
The drugs work. They need to used in conjunction with talent, hard work and skill but the benefits are very real. If they weren’t, doping would be as old as the first Olympics.
 
The fight for better anti-doping standards in boxing is not about grandstanding. It’s not about gaining popularity or notoriety. I can’t think of anything that could have killed my ability to land interviews in this business (faster than covering this issue consistently) beyond giving up sources without reason.
 
The bottom line is it’s a health and safety issue. A ball isn’t being hit farther. No one is running faster or cycling farther. In the world’s least regulated sport, people get hit in the head and body. Be it a fan, media member or industry professional, every person involved in boxing has some part in this. Resistance to this one improvement should not exist.
 
Personally, I am tired of wondering every time I see something spectacular in the ring. And I can’t help but feel bad for those who lost to someone cheating. While those testing positive end up back on TV, who cares for their victims? The sport needs to get its act together and protect these fighters with uniform anti-doping rules.
 
This piece comes out of that. When regulators don’t regulate or, worse, power brokers pay them to regulate without transparency, where does the sport turn for help? One outspoken advocate of anti-doping has come to this sport with solutions. But because of his past, the sport, filled with nothing but pasts, has balked at what he is saying.
 
To learn about anti-doping, I watch other sports and their drug issues. The subject of today’s story seems to be a through line in many of them. Perhaps because of this alone, we should stop looking at his past and focus on his message.
 
Gabriel Montoya
From the road
August 2013
 
On August 10, 2013, The New York Daily News’ Teri Thompson and Michael O’Keeffe published the story “Alex Rodriguez’s Dirty Secret! Yankees Slugger Sought Performance Help in Hush-Hush Meet with Reformed BALCO Kingpin Victor Conte.”
 
 
The “Dirty Secret” story, to some looking for more dirt on “A-Rod,” who is appealing a 211-game suspension by Major League Baseball for his involvement in the Biogenesis “anti-aging clinic” scandal, turned out to be something of a non-story. After all, to casual sports and news fans, even though Rodriguez tried to keep his meeting with BALCO founder Conte a secret, ultimately, he was looking to get legal supplements from Conte’s SNAC (Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning) company and did for three months. Some sports fans shrugged their shoulders at the story.
 
What I found interesting about Conte’s meeting with Major League Baseball investigators regarding the subject is that when they were done asking Conte about A-Rod for over an hour or so, they closed their notebooks and thanked him for his candor. It was then when Conte did what he has done for five years now. He told the investigators he had knowledge to impart that he wished to be taken back to MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.
 
Conte told the investigators what he has been saying in the press for five years. He named the drugs he feels modern athletes use and laid out not only the tests that can most effectively catch them but also administrative changes that would make any sport’s drug testing policies quantitatively more effective.
 
Conte was the mastermind behind BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative). The BALCO raid will have its 10th anniversary on September 3rd. Conte eventually served four months sentence in a federal penitentiary and four months house arrest for conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering charges (the $100 he pleaded to laundering is the smallest recorded amount of money laundered in the U.S.).
 
But since that time in 2003, he has been consistently meeting with various anti-doping agencies and figures including the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the World Anti-Doping Agency, U.K. Anti-Doping, the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA), the Association of Ringside Physicians (ARP) and Richard Young, co-author of the WADA Code. Conte has sponsored several boxers and MMA fighters who wished to be tested by VADA’s strict protocol, putting his money where his mouth is as a small form of restitution. Meeting with all of them, he was not giving names but rather knowledge gleaned from having been on both the light and dark sides of sport.
 
Understanding all this, the MLB investigators, a lawyer and a former law enforcement officer, opened their notebooks and began taking copious notes, joining the sports organizations in listening to a man who has been on both sides of the slippery slope that is sports doping.
 
With that in mind, here is a look at Conte’s advice in relation to other sports.
 
In July of 2008, following the stunning showing by the Jamaicans at the Olympic Trials, particularly the females, Conte spoke out about the sudden rise of the Jamaican Olympic track team in an L.A. Times article by Lance Pugmire.
 
“To see the fastest people in the world coming from one island [Jamaica], I’m highly suspicious. I believe there’s rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs in the Caribbean,” said Conte. The article also details Conte’s meeting with Mr. Richard Pound in December 2007.
 
 
Pound, a co-founder of WADA and co-author of the WADA Code, said in the piece, “[Conte’s] information was good and that we should follow up.” However, Pound left office weeks later and the info apparently died on the vine.
 
The statement given at the time by Dr. Herb Elliott, “a Jamaican member of the IAAF’s Medical and Anti-Doping Commission and top enforcement official in the country,” is interesting in light of Jamaica’s current situation.
 
“We are far in advance of the U.S. record for [preventing] doping,” said Dr. Elliott in 2008. “We preach, cajole and test…Sports is such a part of our culture that the disgrace [of doping] is so great that the Jamaicans that live here wouldn’t even consider it.”
 
In May of 2013, Jamaican 200-meter World Champion Veronica Campbell-Brown and discus thrower Allison Randall tested positive for banned substances. In July, Jamaican sprinter Asafa Powell and Sherone Simpson also tested positive for banned substances.
 
As he did in 2008, Jamaica Anti-Doping Commission (JADCO) chairman Dr. Elliott defended his country’s anti-doping program in The Guardian’s coverage of the positive results.
 
 
From the piece:
 
“When The Guardian asked Dr Herb Elliott, the JADCO chairman, whether he knew how many out-of-competition tests had taken place in 2013 he insisted he did, but would not release the figures because, ‘I don’t want our athletes to know whether it’s 400 or 500 or whatever.’”
 
Conte publicly doubted the numbers and on July 30, 2013, WADA released its annual anti-doping report. Their numbers echoed Conte’s skepticism and contradicted Dr. Elliott’s statistics. On August 3, Conte penned this op-ed in the New York Daily News once again disputing the numbers provided by Dr. Elliott.
 
 
On August 19, 2013, Sports Illustrated printed an exposé by former JADCO Executive Director Renee Anne Shirley called “An Inside Look at Jamaican Track’s Drug-Testing Woes.”
 
Shirley was formerly the Senior Adviser to Jamaica’s Minister of Sport and was intrinsic in the creation of JADCO. In her piece, she pointed out that in the five months leading up to the 2012 London Games, only one out-of-competition test was conducted on the team. In doping terms, willful ignorance.
 
On August 22, 2013, WADA issued an official warning to JADCO to clean up its act or Usain Bolt and the rest of the star Jamaican track team will sit out the Brazil Games in 2016. What started as a simple sit-down between Conte and Pound in 2008 gained momentum and is still a breaking story as of press time.
 
Conte has been prescient in other sports as well.
 
In a November 21, 2011 New York Daily News article by Teri Thompson, Conte discussed what he feels is the real drug problem in sports, synthetic testosterone, not Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which at the time, MLB had agreed to begin testing for.
 
 
Three weeks later, National League MVP Ryan Braun was caught using synthetic testosterone. Braun would later fight the charge and subsequent suspension, arguing his sample had been mishandled by the sample collector. He won the case and returned to play only to be caught in the Biogenesis scandal this year. He is now serving a 65-game suspension as a result. Braun apologized to all involved and admitted his drug use in a statement issued this week.
 
Braun’s initial positive test preceded a series of back-to-back positive tests by players later linked to the Biogenesis scandal. Among them were Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal.
 
Recently, Conte appeared on “Jim Rome on Showtime” to discuss the “A-Rod” relationship. The edited conversation focused mainly on that subject. Maxboxing.com has obtained the unedited copy of the broadcast, some of which will be printed here. As with the MLB investigators, Conte shifted over to the issue facing every sport in the world: how to better police rampant doping.
 
“Let me say that a number of high-profile athletes in a number of different sports have come to me, trying to get me, knowing I have that knowledge, to go back on the dark side. So it wouldn’t have surprised me if [Rodriguez] had asked about that. But he did not,” Conte told Rome.
 
When pressed for who the athletes were, Conte responded, “Some of the biggest boxers in the world. I don’t want to name names but some of the biggest names out there.”
 
We’ll get back to that one.
 
Conte brought up an interesting aspect of doping: deterrent. Even if he never plays again, Rodriguez will still be an incredibly wealthy man. Braun will sit out this season and lose roughly 1.5 of a 120 million-dollar contract, not much of a financial deterrent.
 
“A lot of these guys make this decision. Just take recently as an example, like Melky Cabrera. Well, he was looking at a $75 million contract. He had a positive drug test. He sat out 50 games and came back and got a $30 million contract. So I don’t think the consequences are enough to create the deterrent that is going to be required,” said Conte, who pointed out that in Olympic sports, a first offense carries a two-year ban.
 
Conte pointed out a major flaw in not only Major League Baseball’s testing protocol but most sports: the lack of out-of-competition testing.
 
“I basically think that [MLB’s drug program is] inept,” said Conte. “Bud Selig says that this is the toughest anti-doping program in American sports. Let’s look at it for just a minute. Other than those players who have tested positive or who are being targeted, [MLB] does two tests per year. The first one is at training camp. Well, that’s an I.Q. test; that’s not a drug test. All they do is taper off [before arriving to camp]. So one time during the season, they do a random test. Well, in most cases, most guys consider after that test that it’s a green-light open season to use drugs. They don’t do adequate testing.”
 
Conte’s numbers breakdown of what MLB could do and what they actually do suggests, like with JADCO, a willful ignorance on the part of MLB officials.
 
“This is my biggest criticism of Major League Baseball, during the off-season: the contract says that Major League Baseball can test up to 375 players during the off-season. If you look at the numbers over the last five years, it’s about 50 players per year. So if you have the ability to test 30 percent of the leakage and you’re testing less than five and you know that this is the time that these athletes are using performance-enhancing in conjunction with intensive weight training and this is when they develop their strength and speed base that serves them throughout the season,” explained Conte, “why would you not put your hook in the water when you know the fish are biting? That’s what makes me question whether or not they have a genuine interest in actually catching these players that are using drugs.”
 
Rome asked Conte how many baseball players he feels are cheating by using PEDs, to which he got the headline answer from Conte, “If I define that as the entire calendar year including the off-season, I believe it is about 50 percent.”
 
“In your opinion, does the NFL have a drug problem?” Rome asked.
 
“I think the NFL has a very serious drug problem,” Conte responded. “Let me give you an example - and I have talked to some of the executives at the NFL. WADA has a list of stimulants; I believe there are 61 stimulants on this list. The NFL has a list they call “Certain Stimulants.” They have 10 stimulants on it. The basic idea - this was back in the early 2003 time frame when I called and WADA’s list had 42 and the NFL’s had eight - but the basic message is, ‘We only test for these 10 stimulants, so these other 51 stimulants are open-season green-light.’ So all you have to do is get the WADA list and compare it to the NFL list and get one of these other 51 stimulants.”
 
Conte also pointed out the red herring that is HGH testing, which the NFL has begun a population study of this year.
 
“First of all, I’m not a fan of HGH. I never was as a performance-enhancer. They did a review study out of Stanford (http://grg51.typepad.com/steroid_nation/2008/03/review-from-sta.html) and they looked at whether HGH made you bigger, made you faster and the answer was ‘No.’ There is no shred of evidence that shows that it does that. Will it burn body fat? Will it make you bigger? Yes, but it won’t make you faster and it won’t make you stronger. Could it help to accelerate the healing of a connective tissue, ligament, tendon-type of injury? The answer is yes. Would it help with recovery? Yes, but is that going to make you hit the ball farther? Is that really going to change the statistics like testosterone will?”
 
Conte offered a solution that, unlike the HGH studies and testing, would likely yield greater results in his opinion.
 
“If this HGH test costs $400 [a sample], I believe a better use of the available dollars is to use the money for this Carbon Isotope Ratio test for synthetic testosterone because I believe players are taking it after games. It peaks about four hours after you take it. By the time you wake up, you are back down below that 4:1 T/E ratio and they are not being detected, whereas if you use this additional test, they can detect up to two weeks after you use it. So they would pretty much shut down the use of synthetic testosterone if they were to use this CIR testing for synthetic testosterone.”
 
Rome circled back to the question regarding athletes coming to Conte looking for PEDs. Conte said no baseball players had - but boxers did. Rome asked why Conte felt boxers instead of baseball players were seeking him out looking for “dark side” tricks.
 
“I think it’s just my bumping into Nonito Donaire, a boxer, and he ultimately had success. How much I contributed to that, I can’t say but he became the “Fighter of the Year” in [2012] and this drove a lot of other people to me as a result of my relationship with him and that success,” surmised Conte. “And so I didn’t have that in MLB.”
 
“Not a single NFL’er has approached you?” asked Rome.
 
“No,” said Conte.
 
“So you’ve got to be pretty dumb to get caught,” summed up Rome.
 
“You’ve got to be dumber than dumb,” said Conte, getting a laugh out of the live audience.
 
“Have you ever been tempted to go back to the dark side?” asked Rome.
 
“No. Not after what I have been through,” Conte responded. “Now that I have seen what the consequences are and how damaging that it is, not only to you as an individual but to your family and all those around you. I was reckless with what I was doing back in the BALCO days. I thought, ‘I’m a big boy. I know there’s risks involved here. I’ll be able to deal with it if there’s consequences.’ What I didn’t understand was that I would possibly be sitting in a prison cell, looking at my family and seeing the pain and total undoing of their lives and that I had I caused that and that’s what made me realize that, you know, I hadn’t thought this through. It was reckless. It was wrong. It was all wrong.”
 
Against the backdrop of Conte’s advice, WADA released a report in May titled “Report to WADA Executive Committee on Lack of Effectiveness of Testing Programs.” Among the findings, the report alluded to JADCO’s willful ineffectiveness among broader concerns.
 
From the WADA report:
 
“Attention is currently being diverted from the need to find a solution to doping in sport to fractious bickering about the degree of effort made by certain organizations and recriminatory complaints regarding the role of WADA. A new focus has also been put on the matter of match-fixing and corruption, combined with some expression that match-fixing is a far more serious problem than doping without, apparently, the recognition that doping is very much a subset of the entire problem but with immediate and visceral impact on a much broader range of the sport population than match-fixing.”
 
 
Of the many suggestions given, the report suggested that all WADA labs increase their use of Carbon Isotope Ratio testing, confirming what Conte has been saying for roughly eight years now.
 
On August 22, 2013, the New York Times printed this article, “Research Finds Doping Study Withheld,” echoing the idea that perhaps at the top levels of sport, there is collusion going on.
 
 
It’s this kind of culture, where the admins let the athletes cheat, that ruins sports for those who wish to compete cleanly. In boxing, it will likely create an even more dangerous environment.
 
The thing Conte knows better than any lab tech, lawyer or pundit is the bottom line, which not only includes knowledge of PEDs but the consequences for those going down that road. What part of that is not valuable?
 
“Listen. Performance-enhancing drugs work,” he told Rome and the rest of us. “I know. If you’re not performing, you’re on the bench and then you’re out of the league. So you have what they call the ‘Use or Lose’ mentality. If you don’t have confidence in the testing program and you believe your competition is using PEDs, these players feel they have to do what they have to do in order to be competitive. So they’re going to take that risk most of the time, not all of the time.”
 
With million-dollar contracts from the league and sponsors on the line and no true deterrents in place, the rewards outweigh the risks. With administrators who continue to defend star cheaters, the “Use or Lose” culture Conte and others describe will continue to grow until perhaps a tragedy occurs.
 
“It’s a bigger risk not to use because it gives such an edge,” said Conte.
 
Perhaps the bigger risk is to dismiss Conte for his past while ignoring his advice. Unlike all other sports, the longer boxing waits to heed good advice and clean itself up, the more likely someone dies or is seriously injured before it’s too late.
 
You can email Gabriel at maxgmontoya@gmail.com, follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/gabriel_montoya and catch him every Monday on “The Next Round” with Steve Kim, now at its new home, www.blogtalkradio.com/thenextround. You can also tune in to hear him and co-host David Duenez live on the BlogTalk radio show Leave-It-In-The-Ring.com, Thursdays at 5-8 p.m., PST.
 
 
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