Success a Bitter Pill / College dropout moved BALCO into big leagues before charges
Former Olympic track star Matt Giuto was still in high
school in 1982 when a "bookwormish" Victor Conte first approached the teenager
to test a daily regimen of 30 pills designed to increase his performance by
spiking his levels of trace elements. [CORRECTION: Olympian Matt Giusto's name
was misspelled in a Sunday story about Victor Conte, the owner of BALCO Labs.
Pg. A02 NS 11/05/03]
"It was just given to us," said Giuto, a firm believer of the zinc and
magnesium regimen recommended by the former Tower of Power bass guitar player,
Conte. "He said, 'I'm building the scientific data to show [the supplements]
can make a huge difference in performance.' ... He'd interview us two to three
times a year."
A college dropout without formal clinical training, Conte, 53, developed a
devoted following from school athletes to Olympic contenders to professionals.
From a modest beginning with his ex-wife in a holistic health store, he
developed an intense interest in supplements, even providing his own daughter
and friends with treatments for common ailments.
Along the way, Conte compiled information from those early studies that
ultimately provided him a critical entree into the world of professional
sports, one in which athletes such as baseball slugger Barry Bonds would come
to sing his praises.
Now that entree has landed him in a tub of hot water, say authorities, who
place Conte and his Burlingame, Calif.-based BALCO Labs at the center of the
biggest steroid controversy in professional and Olympic sports.
Conte developed wide renown for blood tests of athletes such as Giuto,
providing them a window into the specific trace elements their intense workouts
left them lacking. BALCO developed a line of supplements to help replace or
counteract what was missing.
Though there was nothing illegal about the concentrated doses of minerals
Conte was handing out at the time, the encounter was emblematic.
Conte, who trained as a bass player before beginning a career in
performance-enhancing sports medicine, has long projected the image of a doctor
and researcher. And he had an uncanny knack for ingratiating himself into the
inner circles of the sports world.
"When you talked to him, you'd think you were talking to a doctor," said
Willy Cahill, a former Olympic judo coach and owner of Cahill's Judo Academy in
San Bruno, Calif., who has known Conte for 20 years.
Kisha Conte, Victor Conte's 25-year-old daughter, traced her father's
career in sports nutrition to a period when Victor joined his wife, Audrey, in
operating the Millbrae Holistic Health Center when Kisha was a toddler. "They
had it for a short while," Kisha said of her parents, who are now divorced.
Victor Conte, a high-school track contender himself, struck out on his own,
eventually becoming so engrossed in his method of tracking health problems to
nutrient and mineral levels that he often tested his own children.
"If I had a rash or something, Dad always wanted to test your blood," Kisha
Conte said. "He'd come back and say, 'There's too much copper in your system.
Here, take some magnesium.'"
When one of Kisha Conte's friends developed skin cancer, he tested and
provided supplements to help her.
Early successes with younger athletes brought Conte an increased stature in
professional and Olympic sports. Cahill, who sometimes brought Olympic judo
contenders to Conte for testing and who himself regularly took BALCO
supplements, said the atmosphere at BALCO Labs spoke volumes about the man.
"He's got signed game jerseys from John Elway and Bill Romanowski on the
walls," he said of the Burlingame facility, which also boasts a fully equipped
gym. "One time, I was there when at least half of the Denver Broncos were
there, before a Raider game."
It was quite a different scene, Cahill said, when he stopped by BALCO's
offices the first week of September.
"I drove by to pick up vitamins and there were agents with rifles and
vests," Cahill said.
Working on a tip provided by an unnamed track-and-field coach linking a
syringe of a previously unknown steriod, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), to BALCO
Labs, federal agents from the Internal Revenue Service, California drug
enforcement officers and the Food and Drug Administration raided the facility
and BALCO's nearby outside private mailbox. Working with the U.S. Attorney's
Office in San Francisco, they sought records that would link Conte to the
widening drug scandal that involves top athletes in baseball, football, boxing,
and track and field. THG, which officials are labeling a "designer" steroid
developed to avoid detection by anti-doping agencies, is alleged to have come
from BALCO. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has said others might have been
involved as suppliers.
Conte's lawyer, Troy Ellerman, denies the charges, saying BALCO never made
or distributed the drug.
"He's an easy target and a scapegoat," Ellerman said of Conte.
Conte has had his share of legal tangles. He already is negotiating to
settle a U.S. Justice Department complaint that he filed $1 million in
fraudulent Medicare claims. And more than two dozen civil claims have been
filed against Conte or his BALCO Labs in the last decade, accumulating tens of
thousands of dollars in claims, according to public records.
Ralph Barney, the owner of Bob's Collectibles in Burlingame, where Conte
paid $1 a week for a mailbox, said his store also was raided. He said letters
for BALCO arrived regularly from pro football teams, and from management
companies affiliated with major sports figures.
"He does seem to have an interesting list of clients, judging from the
return addresses on the mail he gets," said Barney, who described Conte as "one
of the nicest, funniest, most engaging guys you ever met in your life."
Like many, Barney said he knew nothing of Conte's alleged steroid sales,
but drugs themselves were not likely to have been shipped in or out of the
store, judging from mail he received. Barney said he was questioned by
badge-wielding IRS agents for more than an hour two weeks ago.
"They wanted to know what was in his mailbox at that moment," said Barney,
a former Green Beret. "They tend to ask a lot of questions. Finally I just took
off my glasses, leaned in and said, 'Look. The guy pays me a dollar a day to
take a mailbox. I'm not going to prison for a dollar a day.' They backed off."
Kisha Conte said her dad is holding up well under the strain of a mountain
of negative overnight publicity.
"My dad says everything will be all right," she said, "so everything will
be all right."