Photo by: Michael Byers
Just a few miles from his BALCO lab that served as the epicenter of the steroid scandal that rocked multiple major sports, Victor Conte is building his name up all over again in the supplement and fitness world.
Today Victor Conte is selling. He was selling yesterday, too, and he will be selling tomorrow. He has been selling something or other for more than three decades, with a notable shift to mastermind a notorious steroid program 17 years ago and serve prison time for his role in that endeavor, and, strictly speaking, that affair was probably a sale too—the sale of a lifetime. He arrives at the front door of his business carrying a clear plastic bag full of freshly laundered towels, dressed in a loose-fitting surf shirt and baggy jeans, like a paunchy dad en route to a Jimmy Buffet concert. The business is called SNAC Nutrition, on the corner of a business strip mall in San Carlos, Calif., located some 25 miles south of downtown San Francisco and even closer to the BALCO lab where the scandal that came to be known by that same name was birthed. A black banner hangs across the front windows announcing in bold yellow letters: SPORTS NUTRITION SUPER SALE.
Inside the door, Conte, 66, conducts a tour of the facility so energetically that he rarely completes a sentence and eventually runs short of breath, with small beads of perspiration forming on his forehead. The man loves his work. “We’re having some fun,” he says, and not just once. SNAC Nutrition, a business that Conte launched after BALCO, but more than a decade before he started dealing steroids, is a wholesale distributor of nutritional supplements, primarily ZMA, a combination of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 that Conte created and that may or may not help users sleep better and recover more efficiently from workouts, but which is purchased briskly by the public. SNAC, however, is not just a supplement business; it’s also a swanky training center at which more than two dozen boxers have augmented their training for professional championship fights and Olympic competition and that several call their permanent training base.
Conte buzzes in and out of several offices, including his own, and then veers to an interior island where there is a display of supplements in giant black tubs. Next to that is a “store” that features SNAC-branded gear. Conte has been operating out of this location for 17 months; he says he tried to buy the building but was turned down, and instead leases it for $25,000 a month. But that’s all right because, he says his supplement business “is doing a million a month in sales.” There’s a warehouse at the back of the building, where boxes of product sit packaged for shipping. And, of course, the gym. Conte shouts to his trainer, Mike Bazzel, “We’ll be back in a minute.” There is a conference room with a fancy chess set given to Conte by British sprinter Dwain Chambers, whom he made fast once by giving him steroids and once, Conte says, by not giving him steroids.
Yet the most memorable area is an open foyer adorned with framed mementos of Conte’s past clients: a newspaper story on disgraced sprinter Tim Montgomery, a magazine cover of disgraced Olympic gold medalist Marion Jones, a photograph of disgraced home run champion Barry Bonds (wearing a ZMA hat). An autographed jersey from disgraced former NFL linebacker Bill Romanowski (and to be fair, signed jerseys from several other football players who are not disgraced, including John Elway). It all feels like seeing portraits of Monica Lewinsky hanging in Bill Clinton’s study. Conte knows this. “I decided a long time ago, I cannot run from who I am,” says Conte. “So what I tell people is, ‘Welcome to the Hall of Fame. Or the Hall of Shame, depending on your viewpoint.’ ”
Conte delivers the joke with a flourish; he’s nothing if not self-aware. And it’s important to understand that whatever Conte’s selling on any given day, the product he’s always selling most aggressively is Victor Conte. It is his core business.
The BALCO steroid scandal was the foundation event of what baseball historians and journalists have come to call the Steroid Era, a catchy title that confidently presumes the eradication of performance-enhancing substances from the game and banishes them to a dark past. (Conte has strong, countervailing opinions on this narrative.) Track and field and cycling, also ensnared in the scandal but more hardened by past entanglements, have been less haughty, a caution borne out by subsequent incidents. On Sept. 3, 2003, federal agents raided the offices of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) in Burlingame, Calif. Among those questioned in the raid was Conte, BALCO’s founder.
Ensuing revelations detailed that that Conte, a schemer with a gift for learning skills outside the bounds of traditional education, had shifted from distributing nutritional supplements (first at BALCO, and then also at SNAC) to developing PED programs for high-level Olympic and other professional athletes, using undetectable substances developed by an underground basement chemist named Patrick Arnold. Conte was the perfect antagonist for the BALCO narrative, a man with a murky past and a villain’s name straight from a spy movie.
Yet, outside the discussion of legality and ethics, his achievements were considerable. Conte developed a strong functional understanding of the biology of human performance and enhancement. He wrote dosing schedules for Jones, who dominated the 2000 Olympics; Montgomery, who broke the world record in the 100-meters in 2002; and Kelli White, who won the 100 and 200 meters and the 2003 world championships. (All of these performances were subsequently wiped out.) Conte has long maintained that he did not provide steroids to Bonds (just supplements), but Bonds’s trainer Greg Anderson was a BALCO client and authors Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, in their exhaustive 2006 history of the scandal, Game of Shadows, conclude that Bonds used steroids.
“Conte is one of the great, recent biomedical autodidacts,” says Michael Joyner, an anesthesiologist, physician-researcher, and expert in human performance at the Mayo Clinic. “He got into supplements and nutrition at a time when information was exploding and available on the web. It was a perfect time for ‘innovative’ ideas about dosing, schedules and mixing and matching commercial and black market compounds. With an M.D., if he hadn’t gone in the direction that he did, he could have run a big pharma company.”
Instead, in February 2004, Conte and others were charged with steroid distribution and other felonies in a 42-count indictment that spanned 31 pages and was announced by then U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft. Conte faced a maximum of 30 years in prison. It’s a point of significant pride for Conte that he ultimately pleaded guilty to just two counts and served only four months in prison. “I was public enemy No. 1. They made it into a huge deal for what they had, which was me sharing a testosterone cream prescription that I had with a few athletes,” he says, offering a very generous reading of his history. “That’s why I got four months in a Club Fed where they were smoking weed and doing steroids and the female guards were having sex with the inmates.” Conte was imprisoned from December of 2005 until March 30 of 2006 at Taft Correctional Institution, a federal prison near Bakersfield. Minutes after describing the sex, drugs and rock and roll at Taft, he also described having been initially thrown into solitary confinement to intimidate him out of bringing media to the prison. It’s entirely plausible that both scenarios are true, but Conte employs them skillfully as befits the narrative of the moment—the haughty white-collar genius who gamed the system or the backroom drug dealer who did the crime and did his time.
Both Jones and boxer Shane Mosley sued Conte—Jones for $25 million and Mosley for $12 million—for defamation. “Both thrown out of court,” says Conte. He makes a fist and throws a short right uppercut. “Two first-round Kos.” The Jones case was settled in 2006 and terms were not disclosed. The Mosley case was dismissed in ’10. Rich Nichols, who was Jones’s personal attorney at the time of the suit says, “The confidentiality provisions of the settlement agreement prohibit the parties from disclosing the terms of the settlement.” Conte responds, “I did not agree to not talk about Marion or anybody else, and I’m still at liberty to tell all that I know to be the truth.” He says no money changed hands.
SNAC does not look like a traditional boxing gym. It is spotlessly clean and bright enough that a visitor could forget to remove sunglasses and not realize it. There is a ring in the middle of the room with a giant SNAC logo on the canvas and a quote from Muhammad Ali on the wall behind it. Heavy bags and speed bags are hung in their place. All of this is quite normal. Other equipment is not. When Conte returned to the athletic world in 2009, he reunited with Chambers, who was banned in ’03 for using BALCO PEDs. This time Conte vowed to make Chambers fast and clean, and instead of using steroids, used intermittent hypoxic-hyperoxic training—to simulate effort at high altitude and recovery in hyper-oxygenated air. (Athletes have been experimenting with this, and various forms of altitude training, for many years.) Chambers won the world 60-meter indoor championship in ’10 and tested clean.
As with PEDs, Conte went all in, rebuilding the BALCO model with a legal training method. He studied hypoxic-hyperoxic training and began accumulating and tinkering with equipment. His current gym includes a 12-foot high, 18-foot diameter, clear plastic tent connected to a series of small machines called oxygenators (they look like dehumidifiers and cost $5,000 each; Conte has 25 of them), which control the concentration of oxygen in the tent and allow boxers to simulate high-altitude training. Next to that is a smaller tent with a stationary bike used for active recovery. In other parts of the gym there are next-generation, treadmill-type machines connected to oxygenators and masks that the athletes wear in training to manipulate oxygen levels.
Almost all of these athletes are boxers. Conte says he got into the boxing world (other than working with Mosley in the BALCO days, and Conte insists that nearly all of the athletes to whom he supplied drugs had previously gotten them somewhere else) through a chance meeting with Filipino-American flyweight world champion Nonito Donaire at a Bay Area bank in 2010. But Conte also saw an opportunity to redeem himself through a sport that was also in need of its own rescue. “Boxing was the red-light district of sports, in terms of PED abuse,” says Conte. “Boxing is straight-up about bodily harm, compared with running faster than the guy in the next lane, but there were no random testing programs in place. I felt compelled to become an outspoken anti-doping advocate for boxers.”
Donaire was training at a gym near Conte’s previous gym, and Conte pitched him on his program. Donaire went back to his trainer, Bazzel, a boxing lifer who was predictably skeptical. “People said he’s gonna drug your guy,” says Bazzel. “I talked to him, and he laid everything out on the table. He said ‘That’s who I was.’ The way I look at it, Victor is an example of what boxing has always been. Boxing gives people a chance to bring themselves up.”
Since 2010, Conte has worked with 10 world champions, including Donaire, former welterweight champion Shawn Porter, former middleweight champion Danny Jacobs and three-time former welterweight champion Andre Berto. Some boxers train full-time at Conte’s gym, others come in for intense training in advance of a fight. Conte is not a boxing trainer; he calls himself the “camp chief.” He coordinates the hypoxic-hyperoxic training schedule and creates a nutrition and supplement program, along with blood testing.
The purpose of all this is to keep Conte involved in sports, but make no mistake—it’s also to sell SNAC products. Conte pays everybody: their boxers, trainers and, assistants. In return, they wear SNAC gear and promote SNAC products. “In this world,” says Conte. “I am Nike.” ZMA, which Conte developed and trademarked in 1996, is SNAC’s core product. On SNAC’s website, ZMA is described as “the first product developed specifically to enhance recovery by improving sleep efficiency.” Conte claims that SNAC services 130 companies that are selling ZMA and that General Nutrition Centers sells five brands of SNAC ZMA. A GNC spokesman said, “GNC does not purchase any products from SNAC Nutrition. We do purchase products from other companies that contain SNAC’s ZMA ingredient within them.”
With Conte, the public will always demand a certain ongoing mea culpa for his role in the BALCO scandal. And he will provide it. “Why did I do it?” says Conte, looking across the chess set that Chambers gave him, with pieces the size of ballpark bobblehead dolls. “It had nothing to do with money. I liked being in the trenches with the athletes and with the science. And these athletes, it’s not like they met me and I introduced them to drugs. They were always using drugs, but they were using them out of the trunk of cars in parking lots. That was my rationalization. I’m not proud that I decided to join that culture.”
To this day he continues to play an unusual role in that very culture. At spring track meets in Boston and Nashville, his name was floated to runners, coaches and agents and all of them recoiled. “He blew up our sport and then walked away,” says 2000 Olympic 100-meter gold medalist Maurice Greene, whose response underscores track and doping’s complex relationship, because in 2008, The New York Times published records of a transfer from Greene to a relative of a known PED dealer, without substantiating what was purchased. Greene, who is retired, never tested positive for any banned substances and is embraced as a track and field ambassador at meets around the world.
Conte is also a willing and bountiful source for journalists seeking clarification on doping cases or simply in taking the temperature of the current doping scandal. He did it at the 2012 Olympics, suggesting that a majority of medalists were using PEDs, triggering an emotional response from Usain Bolt. Conte does so, here, as well: “Baseball players were hitting 70 home runs, now they’re hitting 50 so they must be clean?” says Conte. “No. They’re still using drugs, they’re just sneaking around more, and the gains are less because they have to duck and dodge the testing.” He identified a particular drug that he’s confident athletes are using today, which can be taken on the day of competition.
It is up to athletes to decide whether they trust Conte or not. “I know bits and pieces of his story,” says Nicola Adams, 34, of Great Britain, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who is 2–0 as a professional. “I’m a great believer that everybody deserves second chances. He’s doing good things for the sport.’’
When U.S. 2012 Olympic flyweight bronze medalist Marlen Esparza, 27, started working with Conte in 2010, her agent told her not to mention his name in interviews, just SNAC. “People gave me stick about it,” says Esparza. “Victor told me that would happen. I understand that he’s a guy who did something wrong a long time ago. He’s a good person.” Conte’s boxers are tested regularly, and he has sponsored several in the VADA (Voluntarily Anti-Doping Association) program that tests boxers and MMA fighters anytime in the eight weeks leading to a match. The BALCO scandal, and others, have made it clear that a clean testing record means little, but none of Conte’s boxers have been publicly sanctioned for using PEDs. (Berto tested positive for the steroid nandrolone, but Conte says he wasn’t working with him at the time.)
Conte says he has tried to work with domestic and international anti-doping agencies to effect change, but after some initial cooperation has found them unwelcoming. A high-ranking U.S. doping official says Conte never provided useful doping intelligence. Meanwhile, the massive, state-sponsored Russian doping scandal of 2010–16 and smaller, but no less damaging, scandals involving Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes have pushed BALCO deeper into the past. Conte moves forward. “It doesn’t matter what people say about me,” he says. “I’m an example that there is such a thing as a second chance. I’ve worked to regain my credibility. I would never risk it again.”
The first paragraph of his obituary is written in stone. Now he’s working on the rest.