>The notorious architect of BALCO is showing off a new car. It’s a white, sand-colored 2011 Bentley convertible that is one of only 80 made worldwide.
“About $250,000 out the door,” Victor Conte says.
That’s how the man who engineered the biggest sports drug scandal in U.S. history rolls these days.
The Barry Bonds perjury trial, scheduled to begin Monday in San Francisco, will provide an explosive culmination to the nearly decadelong investigation of BALCO — the infamous Burlingame facility where Conte helped celebrated athletes reach peak performances with a regimen of illegal drug use.
But in the tradition of fellow convicted felon Martha Stewart, and five years after completing his own prison sentence, Conte is putting the stigma of the sordid affair in his Bentley’s rearview mirror.
“There are always going to be people who say I’m the devil, who hate me and think I’m the guy who destroyed the national pastime,” Conte said. “I understand I made some bad decisions and harmed a lot of people. But I’m not going to give up living my life.”
And life is good.
His legal supplement business is booming. Conte, 60, has begun working with a few elite-level athletes again and now presents himself as an anti-doping crusader who wants to solve the cheating mess he once helped perpetuate.
The author F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that there are no second acts in American life. He never met Conte, the one-time Tower of Power
bass player who transformed himself into a self-taught nutritionist.
‘Owning’ his shady past
After the fall of BALCO, Conte’s company, Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning, or SNAC, provided him an entrepreneurial avenue to rebuild his net worth. He claims 100,000 bottles alone of his over-the-counter sleeping enhancer ZMA are sold each month under various product labels.
SNAC’s headquarters, located in a San Carlos industrial office park, are decorated with photos and memorabilia from athletes Conte has worked with during his high-flying BALCO days — many of them now disgraced.
A framed Mercury News front page from May 26, 2004, features the headline: “How BALCO Built the World’s Fastest Man.” Tim Montgomery, once the 100-meter record-holder, later was stripped of that title and now sits in an Alabama prison for money-laundering and heroin dealing.
Conte describes the SNAC offices as either a “Hall of Shame or Hall of Fame,” depending on your perspective.
“Initially, I tried to run from who I am,” he said. “Products wouldn’t have my picture. I didn’t really want people to know that it was me.”
But he reconsidered and decided to “own” his shady past. So, a company brochure announces: “Balco Mastermind Victor Conte Introduces The SNAC System!”
Conte, who once flexed his biceps for cameras in front of the San Francisco court building, doesn’t do chagrined. He even has a dog named Balco.
Make no mistake, though, Conte is well-aware that he ruined lives and reputations.
The BALCO scandal led to the United States giving up Olympic track medals, the erasing of world records and world titles, and numerous convictions. One-time golden girl Marion Jones was exposed as a fraud.
Bonds, the investigation’s other signature athlete, finally has his day in court over whether he lied about his alleged illegal drug use.
The two were introduced through their mutual friend, Greg Anderson, the slugger’s personal trainer. But while Conte speaks willingly about the cheating of former track clients such as Jones, he has claimed to have no knowledge of the baseball star ever using illegal drugs.
Conte maintains that his association with Bonds was much more transient — he gave his father, Bobby Bonds, who was then dying of cancer, concoctions to help ease his suffering. Bonds and Conte have not talked since BALCO was raided on Sept. 3, 2003, by authorities that included IRS agents.
Whatever the outcome of the trial, a large segment of baseball fans always will view Bonds’ home run records as tainted.
And Conte will be regarded as the puppet-master who led the stars astray. He served four months in a minimum-security prison and four months under house arrest after pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering.
Five years later, the San Mateo man seemingly is everywhere. One recent day, his voice was raspy from doing nonstop interviews. He contends that elite-level sport, as a whole, is dirtier than ever. The NFL, Conte said, “is a complete joke with their testing.”
Peter Keane, a former dean at Golden Gate University Law School who has followed the BALCO case closely from the start, gives Conte this: “He does not make things dull.”
But the law professor also said Conte’s high profile since leaving prison does him a disservice.
“Anybody else who had been through something like this would at a minimum keep their head down, not draw attention,” Keane said. “The last thing you would want to be doing is popping off. He seems to have a self-destructive streak.”
Frequent targets of Conte’s criticism are the world and U.S. anti-doping agencies, which he believes are not serious about ridding sport of performance-enhancers.
Travis Tygart, head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, counters that the man who figured out how to circumvent the drug-testing system by providing athletes with undetectable steroids hasn’t come clean on everything he did during the BALCO years.
“You can’t have it both ways,” Tygart said. “Victor Conte will not be truthful about Barry Bonds or other athletes. If Bernie Madoff gets out of prison and wants to go work at the Fed while there’s billions of dollars yet to be repaid, I think there would be an outcry.”
Redemption, Tygart added, “just doesn’t come for free.”
That hasn’t stopped Conte from planning to create a drug-testing program for boxing and mixed-martial arts. He sees himself much like a reformed computer hacker who now wants to design better security systems.
“I realize I may be the only person in the world who can do this thing,” he said.
Conte’s interest in boxing begins with his latest project, Nonito Donaire, a 28-year-old bantamweight world champion from San Lorenzo. Donaire started working with Conte after a chance meeting at a bank, even though the boxer’s friends and family warned him about the nutritionist.
Bring on any testing, Donaire said.
“I have my vein, you have a needle,” the boxer said. “Check it out.”
Conte recruited banned BALCO track coach Remi Korchemny, of Castro Valley, to help train the boxer. In a past life, they promoted recovery through the use of such exotic drugs as the blood-booster EPO and human growth hormone. Today, Conte contends the secret formula is old-fashioned rest to help a fighter who previously was overtraining.
Another client is Chicago Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd, who, in a recent “HBO Real Sports” interview, said there is nothing improper about his training, although he understands why people would question his ties to Conte.
For his part, Conte knows that many will continue to suspect something nefarious about his methods.
“There will always be doubters,” he said. “But the basis of Christianity is forgiveness and there are a lot of people associated with sports who have forgotten that. There are a lot of haters who don’t believe enough is enough.”
He might include the IRS in that group. Since emerging from prison, Conte and his company have been audited repeatedly.
“I guarantee you,” Conte said with a smile, “that we’re clean.”