Balco Twist Puts U.S. Track on Defensive

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    April 21, 2004


    In three months, Olympic trials will determine the United

    States’ track and field team for the Summer Games in

    Athens. In four months, the Games will begin. No team is

    historically more powerful than the Americans in track and

    field, the Summer Olympics’ most important sport. But no

    team is more unsettled at the moment, given the possibility

    of continuing fallout from the Balco steroids scandal.

    Already, four American track and field stars face

    suspensions after testing positive for the designer steroid

    THG, or tetrahydrogestrinone. National and international

    Olympic and track officials are tensely waiting to find out

    whether other athletes will be prohibited from competing in

    Athens because they used illicit performance-enhancing


    A potential twist in the case is this: Athletes do not have

    to test positive to be considered doping cheaters. The

    United States Anti-Doping Agency, which oversees drug

    screening in Olympic sports, can sanction athletes if they

    admit to having used banned substances or if other

    evidence, including documents, statements and witnesses,

    can prove drug use beyond a reasonable doubt.

    As Olympic and track officials await a resolution of the

    Balco case, which may not go to trial until the fall, they

    face the potential embarrassment of sending cheaters to

    Athens and then having to force athletes to return tainted

    medals after the Games end. Sports officials would like the

    Balco issue settled quickly, but they are powerless to

    resolve matters themselves.

    “We have to wait; there’s nothing we can do, really,” said

    Nick Davies, a spokesman for track and field’s world

    governing body, known as the I.A.A.F. “It’s something we

    have to live with.”

    Terry Madden, chief executive of the American anti-doping

    agency, said in February that he expected investigations by

    the federal government and the anti-doping agency “will

    lead to the initiation of more doping cases against

    athletes and others.”

    How does the anti-doping agency build its case against

    athletes who may be implicated in the Balco case but who

    have not tested positive in drug screenings? One clue is a

    meeting tentatively scheduled for today between officials

    of the anti-doping agency and Victor Conte Jr., founder of

    Balco, the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. He is one of

    four men in the case charged with distributing steroids and

    laundering money. It is not certain whether the meeting

    will occur, Robert Holley, who is Conte’s lawyer, said


    Presumably, the anti-doping agency would seek firsthand

    knowledge about doping and corroborating documents from

    Conte. But it is not clear that such a meeting would be

    beneficial to either side. It remains uncertain what Conte

    would offer to the anti-doping agency, or what the

    anti-doping agency could offer him.

    Conte would be unlikely to admit anything to the United

    States Anti-Doping Agency without first securing a deal

    from federal prosecutors, lawyers familiar with the case


    “Any plea negotiation or any negotiations of any kind of

    disposition short of trial would have to go directly

    through the U.S. Attorney’s office and the Justice

    Department, period,” Holley said. “And U.S.A.D.A. isn’t

    part of that.”

    It is possible, officials involved in the investigation

    said, that Conte’s cooperation with the anti-doping agency

    might be viewed favorably in a plea negotiation with the

    United States attorney’s office in San Francisco, which is

    prosecuting the case. Conte is also scheduled to meet today

    with prosecutors to examine evidence, Holley said.

    “Victor Conte has information that he would love to be of

    service to the Olympic Committee, if that were something

    that were a viable option, given the charges pending

    against him,” Holley said. But, he added, “We cannot do

    anything to hurt his position.”

    The anti-doping agency has worked with federal

    investigators on the Balco case, but it is not known how

    much evidence the Justice Department would share as it

    builds its own criminal case. Matthew J. Jacobs, an

    assistant United States attorney in San Francisco, declined

    to comment on the Balco case yesterday. In general, he

    said, rules of criminal procedure prohibit the disclosure

    of grand jury material. It is also the practice of the

    Justice Department not to disclose the names of potential

    witnesses who have not been charged with a crime, Jacobs


    But the anti-doping agency has other potential evidence

    that it could explore, such as e-mail messages to and from

    Conte involving track and field athletes and checks written

    to Conte by athletes, including one described as an Olympic

    gold medal winner. The existence of such documents were

    made public in government affidavits, with the names of

    athletes edited out.

    The anti-doping agency could receive assistance in this

    evidence search from the Senate Commerce Committee, whose

    chairman is John McCain, Republican of Arizona. Two weeks

    ago, McCain subpoenaed documents related to Olympic

    athletes from the Justice Department.

    Athletes might also find themselves vulnerable to perjury

    charges if they were found to have lied last fall to the

    federal grand jury investigating the Balco scandal, lawyers

    have said.

    What Conte and others may be able to prove about doping is

    certain to send shivers through the American track

    community. For years, the sport has existed in an

    atmosphere tainted by drug scandals and international

    accusations that American officials had covered up positive

    drug tests. The legitimacy of any great performance comes

    under suspicion in such a cynical setting.

    Marion Jones, the Olympic sprint champion, and Tim

    Montgomery, the world-record holder at 100 meters, each

    testified before the Balco grand jury. Each has denied

    using banned substances. Neither has been charged with any

    crime. But that does not rid the sport from a dark cloud of


    Last weekend at the Mount San Antonio College Relays in

    California, talk swirled around the Balco case and its

    potential implications. “It’s time for a lot of positive

    things to happen, because a lot of negative things have

    been happening,” said Maurice Greene, the Olympic champion

    at 100 meters.

    Just yesterday, four American track athletes – Chryste

    Gaines, Eric Thomas, Chris Phillips and Sandra Glover – got

    public warnings, but were not barred, after testing

    positive for the stimulant modafinil.

    Jill Geer, a spokeswoman for USA Track & Field, said the

    national governing body had confidence in the anti-doping

    agency’s investigation and hoped it would be resolved

    quickly. “It is in no one’s interest to have any innocent

    athlete competing under suspicion, nor is it in anyone’s

    interest to have cheaters competing,” Geer said in a


    Because the United States Olympic Committee is committed to

    sending a clean team to Athens, it is willing to absorb

    more unfavorable publicity in the Balco case, Jim Scherr,

    the committee’s chief executive, said. “If someone ended up

    indicting competitors, that’s a price we’re willing to pay

    to do what’s right,” Scherr said.

    Liz Robbins contributed reporting for this article.

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