Although this is not an “unbias” steroid story, it’s kind of the media history of drugs, steroids and so on

and how the BALCO scandal and labs created that whole barry bonds and cheating thing, along with putting great negative attention to the steroid market

ND sports physician draws lessons from mixing steroids, athletes

Tribune Staff Writer

SOUTH BEND — It seemed to have started innocently. Victor Conte, from the San Francisco Bay area and the former bass player for Pure Prairie League, taught himself sports nutrition, opened a lab and sold nutritional supplements.

His fortunes soared when one of his clients broke world swimming records. Conte became a millionaire.

But two decades later, the founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative would be sentenced to prison for dealing a variety of steroids, including injections, pills and creams.
The name of his lab, BALCO, would become synonymous with cheating and would taint athletes who unwittingly or otherwise became entangled with it.

Most notable of them, of course, is baseball’s premier slugger Barry Bonds, who this week started his bid to break the career record for home runs.

Dr. James Moriarity, chief sports physician at the University of Notre Dame, described the science and skullduggery behind the BALCO scandal recently during a “mini med school” lecture at the Indiana University School of Medicine-South Bend.

Along with rogue chemists and dealers, the story also includes the dogged investigators and brilliant chemists who uncovered the scheme.

‘Learn to cook’

Moriarity, team physician for the Notre Dame football and men’s basketball teams, said he tells college athletes that using steroids carries a high risk for adverse side effects and, under the NCAA’s random testing program, a good chance of being caught and losing a year of eligibility.

He also warns them away from the body-building supplements sold in nutrition stores and over the Internet. They’re not only unproven and unregulated but unnecessary as well. A good diet provides everything that athletes need for muscle growth, he said.

“I tell young people something they might not want to hear, and that is the way to improve your chance of getting stronger is to learn how to cook,” he said. “It’s the best way to know what you’re putting in your body.”

Moriarity said many claims made for body-building supplements are based on faulty science.

“What the industry does is, they’ll look at the chemical reactions that occur in human metabolism and single out an element or compound that’s involved in a particular pathway,” he said. “Then they make this leap of faith that if some of that is good, a lot of it is better”

The body makes its own steroids naturally in the adrenal gland, the ovaries and the testes. They have different functions, but it’s the hormone testosterone, made in the testes, that builds strength and bulk by activating human growth factor inside muscle cells, Moriarity said.

Augmenting an athlete’s supply of testosterone is like adding a second shift of workers at a building site, Moriarity said. Construction soars. Taking supplements, on the other hand, may be more like bringing unneeded supplies to the site, extra hammers the workers don’t need.

Conte began his self-reinvention as a supplements guru by reading up on the rudiments of nutrition in a library at Stanford University.

He also taught himself how to use a gas chromatograph/ mass spectrometer, a device used to test for illegal steroids in urine samples. But he had another use in mind for the machine: testing the “mineral balance” of athletes and using the information to sell them supplements.

His big break came when he tested swimmer Matt Biondi and determined he was low in magnesium, Moriarity said.

At the time, Biondi tended to fade in the second half of 200-meter races. After taking Conte’s magnesium supplement, however, he began breaking records and dominated the 1988 Olympics.

Biondi became a true believer in Victor Conte.

“When something like that happens, athletes think you walk on water,” Moriarity said. “Never mind there are about 150 other reasons (besides magnesium deficiency) that an athlete hits a wall.”

Conte made millions selling a mix of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B-6, which he marketed as ZMA.

But by the 1980s, steroid use had become widespread in Olympic sports, Moriarity said, and many athletes concluded that they needed steroids, not just nutritional supplements, to compete. Records set in that decade in the “strength sports” — shot put, discus and hammer throw — still stand, reflecting the influence of steroid use.

The fall of BALCO

Moriarity traces the beginning of the end for BALCO to August 2002 when cyclist Tammy Thomas was busted with so much extra testosterone racing around in her system that she had a 5 o’clock shadow, a hint of an Adam’s apple and chest hair.

But what was really surprising was the presence in her test of a steroid called norbolethone, which was not then being marketed by legitimate commercial labs.

That meant the supply was coming from a chemist with access to sophisticated equipment rather than being swiped or smuggled into the country, as illegal steroids usually are. Officials have a term for such freelancers: rogue chemists.

The next breakthrough, Moriarity said, occurred in June 2003 at a track and field event. A coach, wishing to blow the whistle on illegal steroid use, gave a U.S. sports official a syringe filled with a clear liquid.

“He said, ‘There’s a steroid in there, but you won’t be able to find it,’ ” Moriarity said.

Don Catlin, the nation’s top anti-doping detective, was willing to try.

Catlin, then with the UCLA Olympic Analytical Laboratory, found three known steroids in the syringe and evidence of a fourth, which he could not identify.

But he had a eureka moment and realized the rogue chemist had made the three known steroids by mistake and that his real purpose had been to make the fourth, a novel and undetectable steroid.

So Catlin sketched a chemical diagram of a proposed steroid X, a chemical whose synthesis might entail creation of the other three as contaminant byproducts. He synthesized X and analyzed it with a gas chromatography/mass spectrometry device to find its characteristic pattern. Then he analyzed the contents of the syringe and found the same pattern.

He named it THG, short for tetrahydrogestrinone. But it’s better known as “the clear” to users, as well as to readers of “Game of Shadows,” the recent exposé of Barry Bonds’ alleged steroid use by San Francisco Chronicle journalists Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams.

“This truly was serendipitous,” Moriarity said. “If the rogue chemist had not been sloppy, this may never have been found.”

In September 2003, federal agents from the Internal Revenue Service raided the BALCO lab. They found human growth hormone and various business records, including information about Bonds and other athletes.

They also raided the apartment of Greg Anderson, a boyhood friend of Bonds who had been working as his personal trainer.

Two years later, Conte and Anderson were sentenced to prison for distributing anabolic steroids to athletes. A BALCO vice president was sentenced to probation for supplying Anderson with the steroids he sold to athletes.

The list of performance-enhancing drugs the three admitted to distributing includes a testosterone cream, human growth hormone, injectable and oral anabolic steroids and erythropoietin (a hormone that produces extra red blood cells and increases endurance).

Finally, in August 2006, the rogue chemist who cooked up “the clear” for BALCO was sentenced to three months in prison.

It was Patrick Arnold, an Illinois chemist who worked for a legitimate laboratory called Proviant, in Champaign, Ill. Proviant is the parent company of Soyworks of Illinois, which specializes in projects obtained from soybeans.

Arnold was known for his earlier promotions of “prohormones,” precursor compounds that have been shown to turn into testosterone when metabolized in the human body. One of them is “andro,” used legally at the time by retired home run king Mark McGwire.

Epilogue: Two chemists

Arnold’s career has some ironic parallels to that of Percy Julian, a hero in Moriarity’s take on this story.

Julian, the grandson of a slave, overcame racism to invent dozens of chemical compounds, including a treatment for glaucoma, fire-retardant foam and a synthetic steroid that was hailed as a miracle drug.

The steroid that Julian made is a corticosteroid, a substance naturally made in the cortex of the adrenal gland. Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, suppress immune response and put the breaks on runaway inflammation. In long-term use, they break down muscle and make people weak.

Before Julian’s discovery, people with rheumatoid arthritis had to spend $5,000 a year for corticosteroid injections that offered relief from excruciating pain, Moriarity said. The only way known to make it was to grind up the adrenal glands of hundreds of cows for each dose.

Then Julian figured out a complex chemical process to make steroids out of soybeans. The price plummeted.

“Today we give it like it’s nothing,” Moriarity said.

Julian was working at the Soya Products Division of the Glidden Co. in Chicago when he made this discovery in 1935.

A half-century later, Arnold was working at a firm that also developed chemical products from soybeans, also in Illinois.

Two brilliant chemists, one using his genius to help people walk without pain, the other to help athletes cheat.