As two probes converged, BALCO case emerged

Steroids: The far-reaching doping scandal began when a UCLA professor realized separate investigations were looking at the same thing.

July 04, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

In June 2003, a prominent track and field coach telephoned a reporter. The coach said he was ready to talk about an undetectable steroid being used by top athletes, and he wondered if the reporter could introduce him to the authorities who handle such matters.

And that was not all. The coach had proof.

Less than two weeks later, a clear fluid taken from a syringe arrived at the UCLA drug-testing laboratory of Don Catlin. The fluid was sent by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, with whom the coach was by then cooperating in an investigation.

At the time, Catlin was already secretly assisting a federal probe of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), a California company run by a former Bay Area funk musician that was suspected of selling banned, performance-boosting drugs. Agents were literally poking through BALCO's trash.

In the coming weeks, Catlin came to realize that the two investigations, operating independently of one another, were looking at the same thing from different angles. "I'm now convinced that the federal investigation of the Northern California laboratory and the USADA syringe investigation are one and the same," he wrote to himself in August 2003.

So it was that a molecular pharmacology professor played matchmaker and - with a few phone calls - linked two investigations, helping launch the most far-reaching doping scandal in American sports.

Among those being scrutinized are professional baseball and football players and track and field stars who were spotted by agents at BALCO or who have been linked to BALCO by checks or other documents .

While no athletes have been indicted, four potential U.S. Summer Olympians - 100-meter world-record holder Tim Montgomery and fellow sprinters Chryste Gaines, Michelle Collins and Alvin Harrison - have received letters from the anti-doping agency saying that they could face lifetime bans if it is determined they used illegal drugs.

Unless action is taken before the meet, all four are expected to compete in the Olympic track and field trials that will start Friday in Sacramento, Calif.

The mysterious fluid that helped set the case in motion was originally labeled "Compund X." It would turn out to be a never-before-marketed anabolic steroid called tetrahydrogestinone (THG).

Its biggest benefit to athletes was that no one knew it was out there; even if its existence had not been secret, it would have been tough to uncover.

"On the average, athletes know they want a drug that clears the systems in a matter of two or three days," Catlin said. "THG? We can guess it doesn't hang around for more than a day."

Just because a test now exists to detect THG doesn't mean athletes - possibly this summer at the Olympics in Athens - won't try to cheat. "THG is not the beginning and end of designer steroids," Catlin said. "I'm sure we will uncover more; I can be quite confident of that."

As the informant coach's cooperation suggests, the BALCO case has, from the beginning, been strengthened by the fraying relationships - and loose lips - among suppliers, coaches and athletes.

Like long-distance runners bumping each other in a race, principals in the case, including former friends and confidants - have been trying to nose each other out in the legal arena. In that way, the BALCO case is not much different from others in which the accused don't include athletes and role models.

Among those assisting anti-doping authorities is American sprinter Kelli White, winner of last year's 100- and 200-meter world titles. In May, White admitted taking steroids and received a two-year competition ban from USADA.

In her ultra-competitive world, White believed she needed to cheat to keep up, said Jerrold Colton, her attorney.

"She was losing to athletes that she knew she was better than," Colton said.

Since her admission, he said she has experienced "disappointment in not being able to compete and disappointment in herself." Colton said White might be asked to help decipher BALCO documents, but that "she didn't go wearing a wire or going undercover."

Conte wants a deal

Others cutting a deal - or hoping to - include indicted BALCO owner Victor Conte Jr., whose attorney recently sent a letter to President Bush saying his client "is willing to reveal everything he knows about officials, coaches and athletes in order to help to clean up the Olympics."

Conte is seeking a pledge of no jail time in return.

The White House has said it has no intention of getting involved.

Conte worked with Montgomery for a time after the 2000 Olympics and before Montgomery set the 100-meter mark in 2002. Conte dubbed their collaboration "Project World Record" and had T-shirts made up with that phrase printed on them, according to the San Jose Mercury News. But, like so many principals in the BALCO case, the pair had a falling out.

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