The steroid scandal that began when a disgruntled track coach sent a syringe to Olympic authorities is rapidly spreading across the sports world.
Already, last week's allegations that a Bay Area dietary-supplements company provided "designer steroids" to American track and field athletes has cast doubt on America's 2004 Olympic team and overshadowed some of the company's prominent clients in professional sports. The National Football League and National Basketball Association have also said the findings might lead them to rewrite their drug codes.
Given the sweep of the investigation, which has included a federal raid of the Bay Area firm, this could become the biggest doping bust in sports history, experts say. More subtly, though, it offers a rare insight into the cat-and-mouse game between athletes seeking an edge and officials enforcing fair play. Whether or not these allegations prove true, experts add, they hint at at the hidden world of conspirators in high-stakes sports who have have long remained one step ahead of their pursuers.
"This shows what a challenge drug testing is in the world of sport," says Frank Uryasz, founder of the National Center for Drug Free Sport in Kansas City, Mo. "We're always wondering if there is something under the radar."
The current allegations arise from a tip by an unnamed track and field coach. He told the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), the organization responsible for testing American Olympic athletes, that some athletes were using a steroid that could not be traced by current drug tests. The agency analyzed the syringe sent by the coach and determined the substance to be a steroid called tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG.
When the USADA tested track athletes again - knowing how to trace THG - several tested positive. The agency has not yet released the number of athletes who tested positive or their names, but said the coach who sent the sample claimed it came from the Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative (BALCO) in Burlingame, Calif.
Federal officials, including agents from the Internal Revenue Service and the Food and Drug Administration, raided BALCO offices on Sept. 3. Now, numerous media accounts report that BALCO founder Victor Conte says as many as 40 of his clients, including San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds, have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury, though it is not yet clear what information the grand jury is seeking.
For his part, Mr. Conte has insisted that he was not the source of the THG, and he contested the notion that the substance is either illegal or performance-enhancing. In the past, Bonds has praised BALCO, saying he uses the lab to analyze his blood and recommend legal supplements to ensure optimum nutrition.
The current allegations announced Thursday involve only track and field athletes. Even if they spread no further, however, experts say they could mark an important moment in the ongoing battle against sports doping.
"I hope it is a wake-up call," says Don Catlin, head of the laboratory at the University of California in Los Angeles that analyzed the THG sample. "Something like this makes us sit up and say there's much more work to do."
His lab looks at drug tests for the USADA, NFL, and National Collegiate Athletic Association, and for some time Dr. Catlin has believed that there were athletes just beyond his grasp, using sophisticated drugs he could not track. Sometimes, there have been drug-test readings that could never be explained. Other times, it was just a feeling. Now, he says, those feelings have been confirmed.
Certainly, the world's sports organizations have made progress in rooting out doping during the past few years. In many ways, the USADA is proof of that: Created three years ago, it is independent of the US Olympic Committee, yet it oversees drug testing of all US Olympic athletes. Yet critics note that this scandal - like most major drug scandals in sports history - was cracked open not by an agency investigation or lab test, but by an anonymous tip.
"Once again, the drug testing isn't the major deal, it was the [coach]," says Charles Yesalis, a scientist at Penn State University who believes a majority of world records have been drug aided.
Occasionally, scientists can get ahead of the curve - like the time they discovered strange traces of a medicine to treat gout in athletes' systems, and then determined that the medicine masked steroid use. Most of the time, though, scientists like Catlin say they have neither the time nor the resources to follow leads.
"We have excellent labs working to find these things, and they have excellent labs working against us," says Dr. Uryasz. "We're always a step behind."