[With the DSSA bill, S. 3002, now up for vigorous debate, it's worth taking a look back to this article of mine from 2007, as most of the same issues still apply]
By James J. Gormley
On November 15th, 2007, home-run legend Barry Bonds was indicted for allegedly lying under oath to a grand jury about his use of performance-enhancing steroids.
In the New York Daily News coverage of the story, Victor Conte, founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) that allegedly supplied numerous world-champion athletes with performance enhancers, was quoted as speculating that “Bonds could have tested positive due to a contaminated dietary supplement.”
Right. Perhaps Conte was borrowing an excuse from nearby San Diego. On October 31st, The Canadian Press reported that San Diego Padres’ center fielder, Mike Cameron, was suspended for 25 games after testing positive a second time for a banned stimulant. Cameron reportedly said that he thinks he took a tainted supplement.
On October 5th, Olympic gold medalist, Marion Jones-Thompson, pled guilty to charges of making false statements to federal agencies in connection with two investigations, one of which was related to the BALCO steroid cases.
A Checkered Past
According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the BALCO timeline extends back as far as 1988, when Conte was providing free blood and urine testing and dietary supplements to a group of athletes he referred to as the “BALCO Olympians,” whom he joined at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea.
After 1996, Conte formed what he called the ZMA Track Club, which, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,“served as a marketing tool and claimed among its athletes Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery.” According to the paper, “Bonds’ arrival in 2000 signaled even greater opportunities.”
According to USA Today, 2002 was when the federal investigation of BALCO began, followed by a raid of BALCO’s offices in September 2003 and a 42-count indictment against four men (including Conte) alleging a conspiracy to distribute anabolic steroids and misbranded drugs, in addition to money laundering.
In the midst of all of this, in February 2003, Baltimore Orioles’ pitcher, Steve Bechler, died due to “a constellation of risk factors,” according to Broward County medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper, including: “being significantly overweight and not well conditioned”; “not yet being acclimatized to the warm climate of Florida” and “having hypertension and abnormal liver function.”
These extremely important facts were not mentioned at the time by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) when he used this case as leverage for his anti-supplement intifada now, were they? In fact, according to April 2003 comments by attorneys Marc Ullman and Seth Flaum that were submitted to the FDA regarding the agency’s proposed rule for dietary supplements containing ephedra alkaloids:
“This information was left out of many of the news reports that followed Mr. Bechler’s death and has never been acknowledged by any FDA official.”
Picking up the doping follies again in December 2004, grand jury testimony appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in which the paper said Bonds “admitted to unknowingly using steroids during the 2003 season. In July 2005, Conte pled guilty to steroid distribution and money laundering. Reports emerged in January 2007, said USA Today, that Bonds tested positive for amphetamines during the 2006 season.
"Oh, Those Tainted Dietary Supplements" or The Dietary Supplement Excuse
Which brings us back to the present, where we apparently have entered a new age, the age of "The Tainted Dietary Supplement Excuse," an excuse that almost anyone now who is caught improperly using spiked products cooked up in some lab can apparently take advantage of.
Many of these product abusers would have us believe that they are hapless fools, doe-eyed innocent pawns of diabolical masterminds who nefariously sabotage the benign nutritional products that are foisted upon them. Hardly.
Maybe we should suggest that users of heroin could claim that they used an opium poppy extract unknowingly tainted with morphine?
Perhaps people busted for cocaine possession could claim that the Erythroxylon shrub extract they were taking was tainted with cocaine alkaloids?
Who cares about athletes exercising personal responsibility and playing by the rules when stadiums are packed to the rafters and team (or even national) glory is at stake? Isn’t it that much easier for coaches or commissioners to look the other way when championship rings or gold medals are being handed out?
It’s not about dietary supplements but about greed, money, politics and power. The pharmaceutical lobby is very powerful. The money at stake behind sports is staggering. Our need for sports heroes is also very compelling.
America needs a scapegoat. How convenient that dietary supplements continue to be easy targets. Why don’t we blame pharmaceuticals? At least, we know they harm and kill people in droves.
Oh right—sorry. Forgot about all the pharma ads in newspapers, magazines and TV and their stranglehold on Congress and the FDA.
We’ll have to come up with another idea.