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BALCO head says fun prompted steroid ring
By Adam Tanner
BURLINGAME, Calif., March 21 (Reuters) - The man at the center of the BALCO steroid scandal says excitement rather than money motivated him to distribute performance-enhancing drugs to top athletes and advise them on how to evade detection.
Released from federal prison last year, Victor Conte was one of The world's best-known steroid suppliers, with behind-the-scenes insight about the doping that has plagued track and field, football, baseball and other sports."
"It had nothing to do with money," said Conte, owner of the defunct BALCO lab. "I was simply having a lot of fun. It was exciting to be in the trenches, to be at these world championships and Olympics and Super Bowls and travel all over the world," he said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday.
"Some people may view this as being reckless and taking enormous risks, but it was very exciting, it was very fun."
The self-educated Conte, a former professional bassist, created BALCO in 1984 to provide nutritional advice and testing. By the time prosecutors indicted Conte in 2004, baseball slugger Barry Bonds, track and field star Marion Jones and other top clients saw their reputations badly tarnished. Some such as Tim Montgomery, once the world's fastest man, have since been banned from competing.
Conte, 56, said he operated his BALCO lab for 15 years before beginning to deal in steroids, although he says he started using them personally in 1996.
"I made the decision to go down the slippery slope at some point in 1999," he said. "Finally I got to a point where I basically realized that these athletes didn't have a choice."
"I knew there were tremendous risks with it, but it had to do with looking out for the safety of the people that you work with. And knowing that they are going to do it with or without your assistance -- only, without your assistance, they are going to buy it down a dark alley out of the trunk of a car behind a gym somewhere."
STEROIDS, IN MODERATION
A gregarious raconteur, Conte said he told his clients to use the drugs in moderation according to a regimented plan.
He said he advised taking steroids he dubbed the "Clear" -- the previously undetectable THG -- and the "Cream" on alternate days Monday through Thursday before taking three days off, following a bigger pattern of three weeks on, one week off.
"Athletes have families and children and people that care about them, so believe it or not, they're not all as reckless as some may think," he said.
Conte said he obtained seven performance-enhancing substances from a network of different people, including a Hollywood doctor whose clients include film celebrities.
Today, Conte has resumed work at the former BALCO headquarters, now named after his nutritional supplement company, SNAC.
His walls are lined with photographs and memorabilia signed by athletes such as Bonds, the single-season home run record holder to whom Conte said he never provided steroids, and Marion Jones, whom he said he once saw inject steroids. Both athletes deny using steroids.
Conte said he earned most of his income from selling a legal zinc supplement called ZMA, which he still sells for - judging by the Bentley he points to outside - a handsome profit.
Conte said steroids remain widespread in professional sports and he favors legalizing steroid use under close medical supervision.
"Does an athlete who goes to a doctor, who trains intensely, who is tested and found to be low in testosterone ... should they be allowed to have normal amounts of these anabolic hormones in their system? I think that they should," he said.
Conte remains outspoken about steroids but now says his actions had negative consequences.
"Did I know there were risks attached? Absolutely. Did I make choices that maybe I shouldn't have made? Yes, I probably did," he said. "Would I do some of the things that I did over again if I had the opportunity differently? The answer is yes because of what I've learned about the effect upon my family."