Mineral Man A controversial nutritionist says he didn't give athletes an illegal edge

November 03, 2003

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 Anti-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.

--George Dohrmann

COLOR PHOTO: PAUL SAKUMA/AP THE PICTURE OF HEALTH? Conte's pills have lured high-profileclients like Bonds.