Conte and Co in the steroid glare

The central figure

Victor Conte has been in the steroid spotlight before. Not that too many members of the audience noticed him at the press conference hastily convened at a Sydney hotel on 26 September 2000. He was strictly a bit-part player in the drama of the C J and Marion Show.

Victor Conte has been in the steroid spotlight before. Not that too many members of the audience noticed him at the press conference hastily convened at a Sydney hotel on 26 September 2000. He was strictly a bit-part player in the drama of the C J and Marion Show.

It had been revealed overnight that C J Hunter had tested positive on four separate occasions for the anabolic steroid nandrolone, registering 1,000 times above the legal limit. Marion Jones broke from her "drive for five" Olympic golds to play the Tammy Wynette role. "I am here to support my husband," she said, 48 hours after her 100m win in Stadium Australia, standing resolutely behind her man. Hunter, a 23-stone shot-putting giant, broke down in tears, repeatedly proclaiming: "I don't know what happened".

The principal supporting role was played by Johnnie Cochran, the courtroom saviour of O J Simpson. Clad in a fetching lime-green jacket, the celebrity attorney said he was there as "a family friend". Back in 1992, when Jones was a 16-year-old high-school sprinter, Cochran had helped her escape punishment after she failed to attend a drugs test.

Conte spoke as Hunter's nutritionist, saying the nandrolone could be traced to an iron supplement the athlete had taken. He said it was the same supplement that had led to the positive tests given by Linford Christie and Merlene Ottey, but neither he nor Hunter identified the name of the product or its manufacturer. "Some manufacturers don't properly clean their equipment," he said, claiming contamination.

Hunter was banned for two years. He is retired now. He is also divorced. Three years on from the Sydney show, Jones is standing by a different man. For much of last winter she and her new partner, Tim Montgomery, held firm while the world railed against them for training under the guidance of Charlie Francis, Ben Johnson's old coach. Only when Nike threatened to pull the plug on their endorsement contracts did the world's fastest couple relent.

Now, Jones and Montgomery are getting ready to stand in a courtroom in San Francisco, their reputations and the livelihood of Conte on the line. The sprinters are two of 40 leading American sportsmen and women who have been called to testify to a federal grand jury in San Francisco about their dealings with Conte and his nutritional consultation and supplement company Balco, Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative. Conte, a former bass player who has no formal medical training, is being investigated for money laundering, health-care fraud and steroid trafficking.

Jones and Montgomery are listed on Balco's website among athletes who have used Conte's service of testing for mineral deficiency and supplying suitable nutritional supplements. Indeed, Jones is quoted as being "a big fan of ZMA", zinc monomethionone aspartate, a legal hormone-boosting product that has earned Balco an estimated £60m in sales in the past four years. "I had a number of tests done on my blood at Balco laboratories," Jones is quoted as saying. "I learned that I was deficient in both zinc and magnesium. ZMA has really helped me."

There is no evidence that Jones or Montgomery have been helped by THG, the designer steroid allegedly traced to Conte and Balco since an anonymous coach sent a syringe containing the secretly manufactured substance to the American drug-testing authorities. Thus far, only five people have tested positive for the drug: Dwain Chambers, whom Conte yesterday denied supplying; the Americans Regina Jacobs, Kevin Toth and John McEwen; and two more as-yet unnamed US athletes. Like Jones and Montgomery, Chambers, Jacobs and Toth are listed as Balco clients.

The international extent of the THG scandal is yet to be determined. The mammoth process of retesting the 400 urine samples from the World Championships in Paris was set in motion only last week. It remains to be seen, too, what will seep out from behind the closed doors of the grand jury in San Francisco.

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