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Cracking Down on Doping

January 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT

SPENCER MICHELS: More than 25 top athletes paraded through the federal building in San Francisco this fall to testify about their ties to a private laboratory suspected of manufacturing an illegal anabolic steroid never seen before.

Some weren’t happy. Oakland Raiders running back Tyrone Wheatley hit a photographer on his way to testify. Balco, the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, is alleged to have been the likely source of a new steroid known as THG, which was touted as being undetectable.

The laboratory is the subject of a federal grand jury investigation into drugs and money laundering. Its founder, Victor Conte, denied those allegations, but has refused all further comment. BALCO, which federal agents searched in September, makes and supplies sophisticated nutritional supplements that many athletes use, and works directly with some trainers and athletes.

So far, four Oakland Raiders and four track and field stars are reported to have tested positive for THG. Other athletes with ties to BALCO, including San Francisco Giants home run hitter Barry Bonds, testified as well.

Bonds has denied using steroids; his trainer is also part of the investigation. In the U.S., synthetic steroids are illegal unless prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons.

Mostly available via the Internet or on the black market, anabolic steroids are chemicals related to the male hormone testosterone. When injected or ingested, they build muscle and increase strength.

While there are no accurate studies of how many people are on steroids, body builders and athletes are reported to use them frequently. But the athletes are not the main target of this investigation. And that’s important, according to San Jose Mercury-News sports writer Elliott Almond, who has covered steroid scandals for 20 years.

ELLIOTT ALMOND: It was one of the first times that the drug testers in Olympic sport or in sport, instead of going after just the athlete, they went after the supplier. They feel that if they can bring some of these mavericks down, that the athletes then won’t have a place to go.

SPENCER MICHELS: The U.S. attorney won’t talk about the investigation, even to admit its taking place. But this much is known: A used syringe containing some residue arrived in June at the UCLA Olympic analytical laboratory in Los Angeles, sent anonymously by a track coach.

This lab, the only U.S. lab accredited by the International Olympic Committee, is where scientists figured out what the substance was — the new steroid THG — and eventually how to detect it.

Don Catlin, an M.D. and molecular pharmacologist, has been the lab’s director since it opened 22 years ago. Using a computerized machine that recognizes most steroids using electronic fingerprints, his lab searches through samples of urine taken from athletes.

DR. DONALD CATLIN: We know all the fingerprints, and we’ve programmed the computer to go search for each and every one.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the lab’s equipment doesn’t recognize designer steroids like THG, manufactured specifically to produce the most muscle growth.

DR. DONALD CATLIN: You take a steroid that exists and you twiddle around with the molecule a little bit so that it’s not the same, and that can make it undetectable or we don’t know where it is, we don’t know how to find it in the urine.

SPENCER MICHELS: Newly created steroids pose a challenge.

DR. DONALD CATLIN: THG is a whole new chapter. It’s telling us that after 20 years of fighting the battle, there are still people out there who are bound and determined to figure out ways to beat the system.

SPENCER MICHELS: The Olympic lab’s clients include the national football league, the U.S. Olympic team, the NCAA, and other high profile sports groups. Catlin says the lab’s work is essential for clean competition.

DR. DONALD CATLIN: If you value sport, if there’s something about sport that you like, you will preserve it. And there’s only one way to preserve it, and that’s to have a level playing field. There are drugs out there that can make the winning difference.

SPENCER MICHELS: Besides the argument that steroids are unfair to athletes who don’t use them, steroids are also decried as dangerous to the user’s health. At a sports medicine clinic near San Francisco, Dr. William Ross admits it is difficult to quantify the health risks of steroids, but he knows they exist and he occasionally sees them.

DR. WILLIAM ROSS: If we take them in huge amounts, then it can cause high blood pressure, fluid retention, acne, hair loss. In women it tends to masculinize them, make them more like a male; and interestingly in men it tends to give them a higher voice and growth of breasts, it shrinks the testicles. It can create liver injury and very rarely can cause liver cancer.

SPOKESMAN: Champion Karl List.

SPENCER MICHELS: Karl List, a personal trainer who used to be a competitive body builder, used steroids on and off to bulk himself up.

KARL LIST, Former Body Builder: I never really experienced any real physical side effects except for the growth, okay? And since stopping their use, everything’s been fine and normal.

SPENCER MICHELS: List is more concerned about the psychological effects.

KARL LIST: They tend to bring this invincible nature out and this antisocial nature out.



SPENCER MICHELS: What do you mean?

DR. DONALD CATLIN: Meaning … meaning that there are three things basically that you want to do as a, as an athlete on steroids depending on the amount of steroids you’re using, and they’re very primitive, these three things. They’re eating, sleeping and then there’s a third thing.

SPENCER MICHELS: You’re talking about sex.

DR. DONALD CATLIN: Sex. ( Laughs )

SPENCER MICHELS: He used the steroids because his competitors did, and they worked.

DR. DONALD CATLIN: The most I ever squatted in my lifetime, drug-free, was 600 pounds. The most I ever squatted on drugs was 200 pounds more, was 800 pounds. So I mean, you’re talking about probably a 15-20 percent gain in just raw strength.

SPENCER MICHELS: List quit using after five years, because his wife, Jodi Friedman — also a body builder who had never used — wanted him to stop. Friedman did very well without steroids, but eventually was overtaken by women she was sure were using.

JODI FRIEDMAN: At the competitions, it was clear that what was going on around me was that women were using drugs. And…

SPENCER MICHELS: How was it clear?

JODI FIREDMAN: Because of the way they looked, because they shaved, because they had, you know, very masculine features about them. Their voices were deep and they were huge and tight as a drum. You know, it was not … I was genetically muscular, but I was not … I didn’t look like that.

SPENCER MICHELS: Friedman, List and many others are convinced the chemicals are easy to come by at gyms and elsewhere, and that athletes believe they are necessary to compete at the highest levels.

KARL LIST: Even though the stigma may be higher than it’s ever been, I think there’s a widespread use that’s bigger than it’s ever been.

SPENCER MICHELS: But officials and the press are overplaying the steroid scandal, according to Dr. Norm Fost, a medical ethicist and pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin. Fost says the scientific data on actual harm from steroids are flimsy and exaggerated. As for the health risks:

DR. NORM FOST: If you want to play in the national hockey league or in the National Football League or be a gymnast even in the Olympics, you’re taking risks that are exponentially higher than anything that’s even alleged about steroids.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fost claims the playing field is not made uneven, as alleged, if some players choose to use drugs to become stronger.

DR. NORM FOST: Steroids, by everyone’s account, are ubiquitously available. There’s no professional athlete who couldn’t get them if he or she wanted them. So the unfairness argument is just inconsistent with our notions of fairness.

SPENCER MICHELS: Because so much money is at stake in big time sports, including commercials and endorsements, sportswriter Almond suspects there’s pressure not to reveal drug use.

ELLIOTT ALMOND: These people invest a lot of money to put up an image on television screens and in newspapers and radio, and it’s very important. They want to protect that investment anyway they can.

SPENCER MICHELS: Lab director Catlin admits there have been pressures to make sports look clean.

DR. DONALD CATLIN: The pressures do permeate, but they don’t work. There’s only one way to play this, and that’s the right way. Nobody’s going to make a deal with me. Nobody’s ever asked me to look aside.

SPENCER MICHELS: Catlin says that rogue chemists will continue to try to satisfy the demand for undetectable drugs, and that it will take money and equipment to stop them. So what is the solution? If there’s going to be more THG’s, can they always outrun you?



DR. DONALD CATLIN: No. We can out run them any day, but we need the tools. We need the tools to outrun them. We can make sport clean.

SPENCER MICHELS: Penalties and testing policies for steroid use vary widely among sports organizations. The current scandal has brought new attention to those policies and their enforcement.