RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Victor Conte is back in business - and this time he says it’s legal.
The man who was jailed a decade ago for helping athletes be faster, higher, stronger by supplying them with illegal steroids is now providing nutritional supplements to a new generation of elite athletes, mostly from boxing and mixed martial arts.
Conte says his supplement firm, SNAC, is on track for $5 million in sales this year. Based in San Carlos, California, it is just a few miles from his now-defunct BALCO lab, infamous for cooking up the biggest sport drugs scandal in the United States.
But unlike BALCO, he explains, all the products on the warehouse shelves of SNAC, or Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning, meet global anti-doping standards.
Conte, who served four months in a federal prison in 2006 for supplying performance-enhancing steroids to dozens of athletes, says all that remains of BALCO is memorabilia: a rouges gallery of drug cheats that hangs on his office walls.
There are framed and signed pictures of former clients such as Major League baseball’s home-run king Barry Bonds and disgraced sprint queen Marion Jones. They hang alongside the autographed jersey of National Football League admitted doper Bill Romanowski and other grid iron greats.
“In my own mind it is a small form of restitution,” Conte told Reuters. “I caused a lot of damage, I harmed a lot of people, I’m trying to help others not go through what happens when you go down that slippery slope.
“I accepted full consequences and went to prison.”
With his familiar pencil moustache and welcoming grin, Conte explains the story behind each framed photo.
Jones returned her Olympic gold medals and went to prison. Bonds escaped jail but because of his steroid-fueled feats voters have kept him out of the Baseball Hall of Fame and has an asterisk attached to his home-run record. Romanowski retired.
Dozens of others had reputations and careers destroyed, but Conte has emerged embracing a past he knows he can never escape.
A former bass guitarist who switched careers, Conte has used a gregarious personality and self-taught knowledge of nutrition to gain access to some of the top names in sport.
“I clearly understand I cannot run from my past. I am who I am, I do what I do,” said Conte, stretching back on a couch.
“I’m not going to try and hide certain pictures and act like I never did those things. A lot of this stuff was all on the walls in BALCO. People would come in, I would always say welcome to the Hall of Fame or Shame, depending on your viewpoint.”
As the Rio Games unfold, the dark clouds of yet another doping controversy hang over the Olympic movement, with dozens of Russian athletes banned from competing after the discovery that Russia had been running a state-backed doping program.
Having spent years helping athletes escape the anti-doping dragnet, Conte insists he has seen the light. No longer part of the problem, he now wants to be part of the solution, offering his insight and expertise to help snare drug cheats.
He has been following doping developments closely from what he calls the “red light district of sports”, saying fighters talk to him about the latest performance-enhancing drugs and that he is eager to pass on these tips to anti-doping agencies.
One hot drug right now, according to Conte, is a peptide hormone known as IGF-1 LR3, which aids in the production of growth hormone and enables an athlete to boost muscle mass.
“I’ve learned of this from some track athletes. I’ve also learned it from some UFC fighters who claim they take it the day of competition, get tested and they are not able to find it.”
“I’m hearing from the dark side that this is what people are doing,” he adds. “The testing may have improved somewhat, but Olympic athletes are still able to circumvent the testing system and use PEDs.”
Conte says he wants to pass on information about what he is hearing from fighters and other athletes to the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and other anti-doping bodies but believes they are dismissive of him.
WADA did not respond to a Reuters request for an interview.
However, former WADA president Dick Pound says Conte’s credentials cannot be ignored.
“I always thought he could be very helpful,” Pound said.
Editing by Mark Bendeich