How far sports steroid scandal might spread

No athletes have been charged, but probe could affect Olympic team and other 'stars' even without indictments.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

So far, the names at the center of what could be the biggest drug bust in American sports history are hardly a who's who of the athletic world. After all, no kids carry around a Victor Conte rookie card in their back pocket, and Greg Anderson carries no hopes for gold at this summer's Athens Games.

After months of parading some of the nation's most accomplished athletes - from slugger Barry Bonds to sprinter Marion Jones - before a grand jury, federal prosecutors filed their charges last week. Their targets: two businessmen, a coach, a trainer - and no athletes.

Yet America's sports stars are not yet in the clear. At this early stage, the path of the federal investigation remains uncertain - indeed, some experts say it is charting new legal ground. But they add that many signs point toward further revelations and, in time, a reckoning that could tarnish professional sports or recast the United States Olympic team. "I don't see this as the end of it," says Doriane Coleman, a professor at Duke Law School in Durham, N.C., who helped develop the USA Track & Field's drug- testing program.

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For their part, federal prosecutors have insisted that more charges could follow. Yet to this point, they have meticulously avoided mention of any specific athlete. Although New York Yankees Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, boxer Shane Mosley, and Kansas City Chiefs Johnnie Morton were summoned to the grand jury in San Francisco, the government evidence released last week omitted the names of athletes.

Instead, the probe has focused on four people connected to BALCO, a Bay Area nutritional-supplements firm: the owner, Mr. Conte; vice president James Valente; the trainer, Mr. Anderson; and former track coach Remi Korchemny. The government charges that the group conspired to illegally make and distribute performance-enhancing drugs, including a designer steroid that drug tests wouldn't detect.

The legal strategy is not surprising. US law emphasizes possession of a drug or the distribution of it, and the government has given no indication it has any evidence against athletes on either of those charges. That means athletes could prove more valuable as witnesses - and allies. "I would be very surprised if we see widespread criminal investigations of sports heroes," says Rick Collins, a lawyer and author of "Legal Muscle," a book about performance-enhancing substances and the law.

As a result, legal experts suggest that the greatest threat to athletes under suspicion is not from the government, but rather from their own sports. If the current case goes to trial, desperate defendants could implicate former customers. Moreover, athlete-witnesses might be given immunity from criminal charges in exchange for their testimony, but that potentially incriminating testimony might lead to sanctions from Major League Baseball or the United States Olympic Committee, for instance. "[If athletes] testify to using [steroids] from BALCO, I can't imagine the governing body of their sports wouldn't use that for some sort of investigation," says Professor Coleman.

"It has the potential of decimating the Olympic team," adds Charles Yesalis, a professor of sport science at Penn State in University Park.

The scandal, in fact, is already having an impact. During the summer, when the US Anti-Doping Agency learned of the allegations against BALCO, it changed its drug test, and several athletes tested positive for a designer steroid at the US Track & Field Championships. If they lose their appeals, the athletes - including three national champions - will be banned for two years.

The government, meanwhile, seems only to be ramping up its investigations. Not since 1988, when sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal for testing positive for steroids, has there been this much attention on performance-enhancing drugs in Washington. Though Mr. Johnson was Canadian, the impact of the event eventually led Congress to further restrict the legal use of steroids.

Now, through President Bush's mention of steroids in his State of the Union address - and Attorney General John Ashcroft's live announcement on national TV last week of the charges against BALCO - the issue has gained a new political momentum. "I can't imagine that the president and the attorney general are going out of their way to talk about four people nobody has heard of and nobody cares about," says Dr. Yesalis.

The momentum has only increased as the government seeks access to the results of Major League Baseball's drug testing this year - though players were promised it would be confidential.

How the investigation will play out for athletes will become evident only in coming weeks. Some suggest the government simply wants to subpoena athletes for more information about distributors. Others say the tempest will eventually lead to tighter drug rules throughout American sports. Whatever happens, the case marks an unprecedented moment in the campaign against juiced-up athletes.

"There really isn't a precedent for this scenario," says Mr. Collins. "We are in uncharted territory."

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