Andre Ward just became the WBA world super-middleweight boxing champion. Outfielder Marlon Byrd doubled his season-high home run total this year for the Texas Rangers. In March, British sprinter Dwain Chambers ran one of the five fastest 60-meter times in history.
Each has been assisted by a man who earlier this decade orchestrated one of the darkest scams committed in sports history: Victor Conte.
Conte, founder and head of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), distributed then-undetectable steroids to some of the world’s most talented athletes, including Olympic star Marion Jones, the personal trainer of baseball’s all-time home run king Barry Bonds, boxer Shane Mosley, baseball sluggers Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield and some NFL players.
BALCO was raided by federal investigators in 2003 and Conte later pleaded guilty to steroid distribution and money laundering and served four months in federal prison.
Conte has now re-emerged with a new firm called SNAC (Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning) in San Carlos, and in the last year has started working with a small stable of pro athletes.
SNAC sells legal nutrition supplements, Conte says, and encourages use of a high-tech breathing machine for what he calls intermittent hypoxic training (IHT) that simulates high altitude and triggers the body’s production of red blood cells.
Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, said an altitude simulator is not prohibited by authorities, but he scoffed at the value of the device and was blunt about Conte rejoining the athletic community.
“To sell a dirty supplement is easy -- convicted felons can do it -- so who knows what’s in this stuff?” Tygart said. “I believe everyone deserves to be rehabilitated, but I question why any elite-level athlete would think anyone like this would have a secret recipe that can work so well. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why anyone would associate with someone like this who’s made so many mistakes in the past.”
But Ward said he used a $4,000 IHT unit from Conte for “about 10 or 11" of Conte’s prescribed 15 daily treatments while preparing for his Nov. 21 win over Mikkel Kessler. Ward downplayed the IHT training in his win, although he said that, “By the 11th [round], I caught my second wind. That’s when I caught” Kessler.
Said Conte about Ward’s championship run: “It’s worked exactly as I hoped it would.”
Conte said he’s provided his nutritional supplements to Ward and other athletes, including heavyweight boxer Eddie Chambers, who will fight Wladimir Klitschko for a world title in March.
Chambers says he uses many Conte products, from energy shakes to pills that help him recover from weight-lifting sessions and allow him to sleep better. He said he plans to use IHT training before the Klitschko bout.
“Victor’s been through the depths of trouble,” Chambers said. “For him to come back and try again, he has to be straight and prove himself because so many people are watching him.”
Another athlete working with Conte is Kyle Kingsbury, an Ultimate Fighting Championship light-heavyweight. Kingsbury praises Conte’s products for “helping my cardio. Everything he’s done with me has been a difference maker.”
But Conte says “the stigma’s still there” about any of his athletic involvement. After Dwain Chambers ran well last spring, and praised the scandal-stained Conte as “a father” type who assisted his effort, Chambers was scorned by track figures. Chambers was a BALCO client and was barred from the 2008 Olympics because of steroid use.
Conte also faces some legal headaches.
Mosley filed a civil suit against Conte, alleging the BALCO founder didn’t tell him that “the cream” and “the clear” were performance-enhancing steroids Mosley used before his 2003 victory over Oscar De La Hoya.
However, Ward and Kingsbury both said they questioned Conte about his criminal past before working with him.
“I understand,” Conte said. “But 100%, I want to be legal. And after six years, I believe some select athletes have agreed that if someone does the crime and the time, there can be forgiveness. I’m fortunate they’ve allowed me to work with them. And thankful . . . I’ve learned. I’m clean. And if an athlete is using my products now, they’re the last people in the world involved in performance-enhancing drugs.”
When BALCO was in business, Ward said he took Conte’s zinc supplement ZMA -- the one Bonds advertised in muscle magazines. Ward said the supplement helped him feel energized.
But Ward said he laid down ground rules before working with Conte this year.
“Victor, I like you man, but don’t go down that road with me,” Ward said he told Conte. “Victor’s a brilliant guy when it comes to this stuff, but I was still going to be watchful. I did my due diligence. I read all the labels. And I feel he deserves to be forgiven.”
Kingsbury said he too felt comforted by Conte’s vow to preside over a clean regimen.
“He knows if he gets caught again, it’s game over for him,” Kingsbury said. “And I know my livelihood is on the line. . . . I’m fortunate Victor’s switched gears from the science of getting bigger to the science of endurance. It’s perfect timing for me. All the things I do -- jiu jitsu, muay thai, wrestling -- I need my cardio to be strong.
“I just think it’s a cool thing that someone can mess up so big and still have a chance to be successful again.”