United States Anti-Doping Agency CEO Terry Madden announced last week that his group had identified a previously undetectable designer (chemically engineered) steroid and that testing showed that "several" U.S. track and field athletes have used the substance. He also promised that an ongoing investigation will lead to "one of the largest drug busts in the history of sport."
The investigation could deal a crushing blow to an already reeling sport. "This has the potential to eclipse the Ben Johnson scandal," says Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor and expert on performance-enhancing drugs. Yesalis believes the trail could also lead investigators into baseball, football and other sports
In June, USADA was contacted by a man who described himself as a "high-profile" track and field coach; the anonymous caller said he had information about performance-enhancing drugs and overnighted to USADA a used syringe containing tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), a steroid that had been unknown to the agency. After studying the substance USADA could test for its presence. Several track athletes' urine samples turned up positive and will undergo confirmation testing, a process Madden expects to be completed by December.
USADA last week said the whistle-blowing coach identified nutritionist Victor Conte, founder of BALCO Laboratories in Burlingame, Calif., as the source of the THG. Conte's long list of clients includes Giants' outfielder Barry Bonds, Raiders' linebacker Bill Romanowski and Kelli White, winner of the 100 and 200 meters at last summer's world track championships. ( Conte also worked with U.S. shot-putter C.J. Hunter, who tested positive for steroids in 2000.) Last month Conte's lab was raided by agents for the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation unit and a narcotics task force. (As many as 40 athletes, including Bonds and the Yankees' Jason Giambi, have reportedly been called before a grand jury in the case. The office of Bonds's trainer, Greg Anderson, was also raided.) Conte didn't respond to SI's interview requests but sent an e-mail to the San Francisco Chronicle saying he wasn't the source of USADA's THG.
As far-reaching as the scandal may get, it's worth noting that the THG discovery did not come from systematic drug testing. "This was essentially solved by luck," says John Hoberman, a Texas professor and an authority on sports and doping. "It's encouraging that USADA has taken an aggressive stance. But there is much evidence that the cops and robbers approach doesn't work. The robbers are always ahead. It's reasonable to assume they've moved on to the next designer steroid."