|Wednesday, November 12
Feds hunt for THG chemist
By Shaun Assael
ESPN The Magazine
While a federal grand jury in San Francisco probes the finances of Victor Conte and his controversial BALCO lab, ESPN.com has learned investigators are also actively trying to find the chemist who created the designer steroid THG that Conte is accused of peddling.
The search for the chemist is a crucial next step in a case that has dominated the headlines like few doping cases before it. Prosecutors have been willing to give limited immunity to athletes such as 100-meter record-holder Tim Montgomery to get them to talk openly. As a result, "the focus of the questions seems to be on the drugs," Michael Rains, the attorney for Barry Bonds, told The San Francisco Chronicle Nov. 7.
According to a source familiar with the direction of the grand jury, that focus has led them to examine whether any links exist between Conte and a supplement maker whose name has surfaced in an earlier designer steroid investigation. That businessman, Patrick Arnold, pioneered the development of supplements known as pro hormones, which contain legal steroids. Calls to Arnold's Champagne, Ill.-based company, Proviant, were not returned. According to sources who have spoken with Conte, he acknowledges knowing Arnold but denies doing business with him.
The expanding look comes as experts in the anti-doping field are wondering whether THG is the work of a genius, or the result of a hacker who got lucky.
"The universe of these people is large. The world is big. Who knows what goes on in the nooks and crannies?" says Don Catlin, head of the Olympic Analysis Lab in Los Angeles.
To narrow the pool of suspects, the feds will do what they always do -- look for someone who had means, motive, money and opportunity. With the help of coaches, sports medicine gurus, and the world's foremost steroid hunters, ESPN.com has pieced together a guide to the investigation.
Translation: It's Home Depot for the raw materials used to make designer steroids.
Thinker openly sells Gestrinone -- which accounts for the "G" in THG, also known as tetrahydrogestrinone. But since Gestrinone is primarily used to treat female infertility, the inventor needed to alter it a bit. In the lingo of the drug underground, he (or she) needed to make it more anabolic so muscles can easily absorb it.
This isn't as Dr. Frankenstein as it sounds. Last year, scientists at the Olympic Analysis Lab in Los Angeles discovered a kind of drug called norethisterone had been turned into the designer steroid norbolethone by adding four hydrogen atoms -- something that can be done by anyone with a Bunsen burner, chemical condenser, and a degree in chemistry.
Dr. Christiane Ayotte, head of the International Olympic Committee's drug analysis lab in Montreal, believes the same technique appears to have been used in turning Gestrinone into THG. "It might have been the same person who did it or it could have been a copycat," she says. "I give lectures at universities all the time. And at the end of my talks I get asked some very strange questions. You never know why people are asking."
MotiveTerry Madden, head of the U.S. Anti Doping Agency, calls THG "a very sophisticated designer steroid created by a very sophisticated chemist." But it may also be what William Llewellyn, a supplement maker and author of the book Anabolics 2004, calls a steroid of opportunity.
"I think that someone saw Gestrinone was available, realized it could be modified easily, and went for the quick hit," he says.
A study unearthed by Llewellyn shows that researchers at the University of Bonn (Germany) discerned the powerful effects of THG's molecular cousin, methyltrienolone, as early as 1966. What scared them was its side effect: the synthetic steroid lingers in the liver without breaking down. That led them to call it "the most hepatotoxic steroid" they'd seen. With visions of bodybuilders flooding hospital emergency rooms with damaged livers, they warned against it being commercially released.
So what does this say about the person who brought methyltrienolone back in the form of THG? Did he know it was potentially toxic? Did he care? Or was he aiming for something more personal -- perhaps a psychological challenge to the scientists at the UCLA Analysis lab in Los Angeles who decoded the drug after receiving an anonymous sample of it in June?
"It's like dealing with computer hackers," says Karlis Ullis, medical director of the Sports Medicine and Anti-Aging Medical Group in Santa Monica. "It's about money and ego. And often more ego than money."
Some observers speculate that the tipster who sent the anonymous sample may have been the inventor of THG himself. What motive might drive him to do that?
"You get a double hit," says an Olympic sport coach who asked not to be identified. "You taunt USADA by showing them that you slipped one by them, and you make the drug instantly obsolete. It's really very smart. You stop all the copycats and create a market for your next concoction."
Catlin sees an even more underhanded possibility.
"I've wondered, 'What if this is just a smokescreen?'" he says. "What if it's a diversion designed to distract us from another, more powerful designer drug out there? These are the things that go through an active mind."
Ullis is among those who believe the trail will lead them abroad, probably to China or India. "If I had to guess, I'd say someone gave a chemist $10,000 to make it in his lab after he got off work and said 'OK, we never speak about this again.'"
Another line of inquiry could involve those who tested the drug. "You may think you know what it does," says the Olympic sport coach, who spoke only for background. "But you can't be sure until you test it." The coach added that a modest-sized trial for effectiveness and detectability might involve three groups of 10 people -- each of whom would take the steroid and then give blood at a lab that screens for the same steroids as Catlin. At $1,000 a test, that's $30,000 in post-production research costs. It is also 30 potential witnesses who might be found to testify.
For that reason, the Olympic coach believes the perfect test subjects would be competitive bodybuilders. "They fly under the radar. Nobody cares about them and they get their blood checked all the time," this coach says.
Presumably, they're also experienced at keeping their drug use quiet.
Of course, all this assumes that the coach is right about the drug being tested. Ayotte isn't so sure. "It could have been someone who didn't do a stitch of testing and just got lucky," she says. But assuming that this was a well-researched effort, the total cost could be as much as $50,000. At present, only four U.S. athletes are known to have tested positive for THG: U.S. middle-distance running champion Regina Jacobs, winner of 24 national titles; defending U.S. shot put champion Kevin Toth; hammer thrower John McEwan; and a fourth unidentified American. The fastest man in Britain, Dwain Chambers, has also has tested positive though he says he does not to know how THG got into his system.
"Are we to assume that each paid $12,500 for it (to amortize the development costs)?" asks the coach, referring to the supposed $50,000 budget. Or are there more athletes in other sports out there who used it, and helped drive down the cost for everyone?
OpportunityDuring a press conference last month, anti-doping chief Madden fingered Conte's BALCO lab as the "source" of the steroid. But Madden has never explicitly explained what he means. A source familiar with the direction of the grand jury, however, believes the panel is pursuing the theory Conte was just a middleman.
These prosecutors seem to be particularly interested in Seymour, Ill., chemist Arnold, who writes frequently on muscle matters. Arnold, who received a B.S. in chemistry from the University of New Haven (Conn.) in 1990, made a splash by taking advantage of a loophole in a 1994 supplement law to legally market androstenedione, the smash-hit over-the-counter steroid made famous by baseball's Mark McGwire during the summer of 1998. In March, The Washington Post reported that the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Central District of Illinois was also eyeing Arnold for his links to the previously undetected steroid called norbolothone, which was found in champion American cyclist Tammy Thomas and led to her lifetime ban.
When asked if he was responsible for norbo, Arnold told The Post: "I don't want to answer that question. I may have made a lot of things at one time ... I've made things for personal curiosity before."
Conte has told people interviewed by ESPN that he and Arnold have crossed paths at muscle shows and seminars. And a 2001 transcript from an online muscle chat room shows they have conversed online. In a thread entitled "Food supplements test positive for banned substances," Arnold wrote: "I have heard a few athletes speak of situations in which they were treated like criminals by testers." In a reply entitled "Dear Patrick," Conte agreed and then launched into a discussion of C.J. Hunter, the shot-putter who flunked a drug test at the 2000 Olympic Games and for whom Conte flew to Sydney to defend.
Since Conte denies having done business with Arnold, it will be up to IRS agents who carted box loads of documents out of Conte's lab in a raid last September to prove the connection.
"You can have your hunches," Catlin says. "But you can't know for sure. There's nothing in the fingerprint of the THG that tells us what was on the mind of the person who made it."