Netflix’s sports documentary series Untold features the story of Victor Conte and his controversial company, Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, in its new presentation, Hall of Shame. In the early 2000s, Conte was accused of having developed banned steroids and performance-inducing drugs for athletes, which were not detectable by drug screening tests at the time. Hall of Shame covers the primary accused and the investigation that followed, with interviews of Conte, some of his athlete clients, and also the individuals who carried out the inspection against his actions.
Who Is Victor Conte?
Originally a bass guitarist and musician, Victor Conte started his professional career as a member of various music bands until 1984 when he founded his own company. Named the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, or BALCO, this company was associated with sports nutrition and health analysis. Unlike his appearance or attitude made it seem, Conte was never trained in medicine or nutrition and was self-taught in such fields. Hall of Shame presents an extensive modern-day interview with the man, in which he talks about how procuring a library card led to him starting his company. Conte would minutely read and go through health and nutrition journals, studying about compounds like zinc and how they affected muscle strength and testosterone. Based on his readings, he established a technique for finding out what injuries or difficulties an athlete is susceptible to based on their personal bodily deficiencies. It was based on this technique that Balco first started out, in which Conte promised to help athletes stay fit and improve their performance by conducting blood tests and other physical examinations.
As Conte himself states, he never had any problem promoting his business, owing to his charming nature and ability to break through any obstacle. BALCO started collaborating with athletes in track and field, and swimming and then even reached the NBA too. The company worked closely with all players of the Seattle Supersonics during the NBA season of ’92–93. But Conte realized that the real business in this field was in the production and sale of health supplements, for which he once again conducted his own tests and studies. It was then that he brought to the market a line of mineral and trace element supplements, which he named Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning (SNAC). He had developed a new formula called Zinc Magnesium Aspartate, or ZMA, and this became an almost instant hit among many athletes, including Denver Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski and numerous other players from the NFL. As he still repeatedly claims, Conte had not made or sold anything illegal until this point in time.
However, the world of professional sports was already facing a crisis or dilemma of sorts at the time with regard to the use of steroids. Testing against performance-inducing drugs was still at a developing stage, owing to which many athletes, if not most, were relying on such cheats. It was gradually becoming an obvious choice for professional athletes to take steroids because if they did not, then it immediately meant that they would fall out of the competition. Someone would always misuse steroids and easily win competitions, while the others would be left behind. Such a strange situation gradually started to ensure that, without very strict rules against steroids, it was becoming a commonplace training method for athletes. Having closely worked with many professional athletes, Victor Conte had also come to the realization that using steroids and flouting the rules of sports was becoming the only way to ensure success.
After visiting a bodybuilding competition in 1998, Conte became closely associated with steroids and developed an avid interest in them. Bodybuilding, of course, was still the only sport where the use of steroids was mandatory, and this gave the man an insight into the whole matter. Together with his friend Patrick Arnold, a bodybuilding chemist by profession, Conte then came up with an anabolic steroid, which he termed the Clear, based on its ability to fly under the radar of the law. After conducting comprehensive drug tests on someone using Clear to boost his testosterone, Conte found that it was not getting detected by the drug test at all. This immediately set off exciting alarm bells in the man’s mind, as doing business with this new performance-inducing steroid would bring him much more wealth and value than his legal SNAC supplements. It was around this time that Victor Conte crossed over the line of law and morals to start selling the Clear steroid to various athletes looking for these solutions.
Who Were The Athletes Associated With Conte At This Time? What Happened To Them?
As has perhaps often been the case, even more so during the early 2000s, all athletes were using banned and illegal drugs or steroids in some form in order to directly or indirectly help them perform better. Therefore, when Victor Conte and his company were offering newer solutions that would not even be recognized by any drug tests used by sports organizers at the time, they got linked to some renowned athletes. The biggest of them all, perhaps, was Marion Jones, a renowned track and field athlete. Before the 2000 Olympics were held in Sydney, Marion Jones carried the hope of all Americans as she targeted bagging multiple medals for her country. She was also a popular figure, owing to her numerous sponsorships with companies like Nike, General Motors, and American Express.
Before the Olympics began, Jones’ coach, Trevor Graham, got in touch with Victor Conte and inquired about this new anabolic steroid, which was untraceable. Conte provided Graham, and therefore Jones, with a sample of his work, following which the two sides got associated with each other. Conte prepared a full calendar schedule for the athlete with regard to what steroid she should take at what time and what measures she should take to ensure that her doping would remain untraceable. When the competition took place, the effects of the steroids were clearly visible, as Marion Jones simply flashed past the other competitors in the 100-meter sprint race. She won five medals at the Sydney Olympics, having finished in the top three in each of the five competitions she had participated in.
Another track and field athlete, Tim Montgomery, was chasing a personal accomplishment at the time, wanting to set the world record in the 100-meter sprint and essentially be proven as the fastest man on earth. It was in order to achieve this success that he got associated with Victor Conte, asking him to prepare an entire schedule for him so that his doping would go undetected as well. Conte obviously agreed once again, and together they titled their challenge Project World Record. The branding of this challenge was worn by Montgomery during races, along with the sponsorship branding of Conte’s supplement line ZMA. Eventually, Tim Montgomery did set the record of finishing a 100-meter dash in just 9.78 seconds in 2002, but by this time, his association with Conte was already over. This was because of business disagreements between the two, as Montgomery was receiving other sponsorships as well. He agreed to wear Nike-branded apparel during one race, along with the ZMA name, but Conte was against this. To honor their relationship, Montgomery wore just the ZMA branding for this race but then switched to Nike for the next event. This caused a split between Montgomery and Conte, who claimed that the athlete betrayed his support by jumping onto bigger brands when he became famous. Montgomery claims in the documentary that Conte wanted 35% of his winning fee and that this was the actual reason for the split because the athlete did not feel this to be a fair deal. However, Conte claims that he never wanted any such share in Montgomery’s winnings.
Another renowned athlete believed to be associated with Conte and his steroids was MLB star Barry Bonds. In the 2001 MLB season, Bonds attempted to break the record for most home runs hit in a season and did so, too, finishing with a whopping 73 homers. However, there were already some doubts and speculations that baseball players were now using steroids to enhance their performance, and Bonds was also one of them. There was also a different theory on the other side: that athletes and sportsmen were now paying close attention to their diets and that training facilities were also radically changing at the time, therefore, making players perform so well. In fact, it was the authorities’ investigation into Barry Bonds that actually led them to Victor Conte and BALCO. However, no conclusive evidence or proof of an association between Conte and Bonds has ever been found, and therefore, their association still remains a belief rather than a proven fact. Although Conte admits in “Hall of Shame” that he did work closely with Bonds’ personal trainer, Greg Anderson, and also gave him the Clear steroid, he states that he does not know whether Bonds ever took the drugs. It is perhaps almost certain that Anderson administered the steroid to Bonds and that the MLB star was actually using performance-inducing drugs.
When the investigation against Conte and BALCO was carried out, a number of athletes, including these three, were interrogated by the authorities. Marion Jones was not only found guilty of doping but also of perjury, for which she was sentenced to prison for six months in 2008. All her five medals won at the 2000 Olympics, were taken away as well since she had won them while being under the influence of performance-inducing steroids. Jones became the only athlete to receive a prison sentence because of the investigations. She was reached out to by “Untold” producers to be included in the documentary, but Jones did not respond. Tim Montgomery is the only athlete to appear in the Hall of Shame documentary and talk about his entire experience at the time. During the investigations, Montgomery confessed to the authorities about his doping, and his 2002 record was also declared void. Barry Bonds did not receive any direct punishment because of the claims against him, owing to the fact that they could not be proven. But the man is widely believed to have taken banned steroids during his career, and he has not been voted into the MLB Hall of Fame despite being baseball’s all-time home run record holder. Like Jones, Bonds was also contacted by the documentary team, but he too did not respond.
What Did The Investigation Against Victor Conte Lead To?
Jeff Novitsky, an IRS agent at the time, was the lead investigator in the case against BALCO, and he was also the one to uncover Conte’s illegal acts. During a time when Barry Bonds and other MLB players were believed to be using steroids, Novitsky came across the rising profits of BALCO. Almost desperate to understand this rise, the agent started going through the trash cans at BALCO. It was through documents that had been thrown in the trash that Novitsky got hold of a link between the company owner, Victor Conte, and the athletes. Eventually, a full-fledged investigation was carried out, and Conte was also arrested by the IRS, with 42 different charges brought against him.
During this time, in 2004, Conte appeared in an interview on the “20/20” talk show while the investigation against him was still ongoing and spoke about all the athletes he had helped. It was almost certain that Conte himself would be gravely punished, as he was sort of pleading guilty to the charges. Sometime later, though, he hired two specialist lawyers who negotiated with the authorities and carried out their own investigation. The lawyers succeeded in proving that the case was really not as big as was being claimed, and soon, 40 out of the 42 charges against Conte were dropped. The man pleaded guilty to the remaining two, and in 2005 he served just four months in prison, which was the only prison sentence he served.
BALCO does not exist anymore following this major scandal, but Victor Conte is still a free man and an advocate against the use of steroids in sports. After being the developer and provider of performance-inducing drugs, the man has now switched over to the other side, calling out the practice of using steroids in sports.