Who is Victor Conte? Though he posed last week, smiling and holding a photo of his client, Giants star Barry Bonds, the sports nutritionist is, for one thing, a man on an increasingly hot seat The United States Ann-Doping Agency-says it has traced the new performance-enhancing drug tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) to his lab. Conte denies that—and says THG isn't even an anabolic steriod, as USADA claims. But the government continues to build a case against him, and the list of THG users grows.
Last week Britain's Dwain Chambers, the European 100-meter champ, admitted testing positive for the drug. Regina Jacobs, the world indoor 1,500-meter record holder, hammer thrower John McEwen and shot putter Kevin Toth (who are all from the U.S.) reportedly showed traces of THG. Bonds and the Yankees' Jason Giambi have been called to testify before a grand jury investigating Conte. Last Friday the NFL said it would retest old samples, a move that sources say will turn up more positives.
Meanwhile, a clearer picture of the man behind the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative ( BALCO) has begun to form. Conte, who played bass in the '70s group Tower of Power, grew up in Fresno and developed an intense interest in nutrition in the early '80s, when his wife opened a holistic health center. "I never met anyone without a Ph.D. who knew as much about research," says Bob Lefavi, an authority on chromium. "He is almost a savant." Soon Conte began selling supplements through BALCO. "He approached me at a show and was convincing," says bodybuilder Michael Ashley. "I sent him blood, urine and hair samples; he showed my mineral levels were low. I took his supplements, and a few months later my levels were good."
A former Conte associate told SI that BALCO's big break came in the mid-'90s when linebacker Bill Romanowski, then a Bronco, began spreading the word. "Soon NFL teams and others were interested," the associate said. Only one study has been done of Conte's zinc and magnesium supplement, ZMA—and that was cowritten by Conte. Yet players trust him. "Athletes always look for an edge, and Victor is willing to go out on the edge with them," Lefavi says.
Did he go beyond that? Conte's lawyers, Robert Holley and Troy Ellerman, say that their client will continue to make ZMA. So for now Conte is still smiling, even if many of his patrons aren't.