Balco/Conte - 04/20/07
"Come look inside," Victor Conte Jr. urges while gesturing toward his new silver Bentley shimmering in the springtime sun.
When the architect of sports' worst drug scandal is determined, it's almost futile to resist him.
"Go ahead. Stick your head in."
The $170,000 luxury car is one indication of how much has changed for Conte in the year since his release from a federal work camp for his role in masterminding the Balco Laboratories steroids scandal. The flash has returned, and the San Mateo man - once called an evil scientist, a charlatan and worse - has regained his footing in the nutritional supplement industry.
Sales are up 20 percent this year, he said, looking tan and fit while darting around the nondescript Burlingame building that once housed Balco.
"His passion is back," daughter Veronica said this week.
Since summer, Conte, 56, and Veronica have revived the business he operated for 15 years before taking "a turn down the slippery slope."
Balco is gone, replaced by Scientific Nutrition for Advanced Conditioning (SNAC). Conte said professional athletes still want ZMA, his signature zinc and magnesium dietary supplement that he says can help naturally stimulate muscle growth. (The $1billion supplement industry is largely unregulated, making it difficult to verify product claims.)
Conte's primary business involves bodybuilders and combat sports fighters. But he also gets Web orders from Raiders and TexasRangers personnel.
How can he be sure?
"The shipping address is right to their facilities," said Conte, who added that he indirectly supplies Barry Bonds with ZMA.
It's surprising the Giants home run king would continue to associate with Conte. After all, a grand jury is investigating whether Bonds lied under oath in 2003 when he testified he didn't knowingly use performance-enhancing drugs.
Conte has denied providing Bonds with drugs while acknowledging he gave steroids to Olympic track athletes. He remains on probation for another year from a 2005 conviction for distributing illegal steroids and laundering money.
The Balco case has netted five convictions and sullied the reputations of such stars as Bonds, Jason Giambi, Marion Jones and Bill Romanowski. Track coach Trevor Graham and cyclist Tammy Thomas are awaiting trials on obstruction of justice charges, and 15 track athletes either tested positive or were banned because of links to Conte.
"Balco has had a deep effect on the national and international awareness of the depth of the drug problem within sports at all levels," said Travis Tygart, general counsel for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
At the SNAC office, the only remnants of the infamous laboratory are a Balco sign hanging at the end of a hallway and a framed 1984 check for $467.50. It was the company's first payment, Conte said.
The office hallways are lined with framed 8-by-10 photos of famous bodybuilders, football players and Olympians who have used Conte's products. Signed football jerseys adorn the freshly painted walls. Conte's field credential for the 2003 track and field world championships in Paris hangs by the entrance. A few days after the meet, federal agents burst through Balco's glass door and carted off boxes of material that documented athletes' widespread drug use.
Conte said not much has changed in the sports world since the raid 3 1/2 years ago.
Conte, a former bass player for the band Tower of Power, acknowledges he doesn't have proof. He bases his theory on what he has learned about countries - such as those in the Caribbean - without national drug agencies. They give "athletes on their own soil a green light to take as many drugs as they choose," he said.
Conte guesses that half the 11,000 competitors at the Sydney Games in 2000 used some kind of illegal performance aid.
"They have linked 15 to me," he said. "Where are the others getting their stuff?"
The man who once flexed his biceps on the San Francisco federal courthouse steps remains as flamboyant as ever. During a photo shoot he asked Veronica, dressed in professional attire, to repeat the pose with him.
She giggled while showing off her well-defined muscles.
"It's genetics," Conte said.
DNA or ZMA?