As the summer Olympic Games in Rio speeds into view, real concerns have been raised about whether or not competitors will be playing clean.
Despite on-the-ground testing during the games, Victor Conte says it’s still easy to beat the anti-doping system.
“I’ve said this before, the Olympic Games is a fraud,” he said. “It’s promoted as a fair competition among the nations of the world. What’s fair about these rules when it enables, harbors and promotes the use of drugs?”
Conte was once synonymous with doping in the Bay Area. He founded BALCO, the Bay Area Laboratory Collective, a sports nutrition company linked to high-profile steroids cases involving Barry Bonds and a slew of Olympic athletes.
Following the BALCO bust of the early 2000’s, Conte went to prison. Now, he has a new company called SNAC, and helps train professional athletes at a new facility in San Carlos.
Conte also has a new crusade: cracking down on an anti-doping system he says is littered with holes.
“I’m one of the few that’s been on both sides,” he said. “I understand the way it works. Put it this way, for four years I was tapdancing on the forehead of USADA, WADA, and everybody else, and no one got a positive test.”
WADA is the World Anti-Doping Agency, and so-called global watchdog for the international anti-doping system.
Here’s how it works: WADA creates a list of banned substances each year and establishes the approved testing methods to be administered by its accredited labs. The group oversees more than 600 anti-doping agencies. Each country is supposed to have it’s own anti-doping agency. In the United States, that agency is called USADA.
Some countries, like track and field powerhouse Kenya, don’t have their own anti-doping agency. In that instance, a regional agency is in charge.
The anti-doping agencies along with the international sports federations are tasked with testing athletes for the banned substances on WADA’s list. WADA also oversees that process.
Recent doping scandals involving a drug called meldonium have brought the anti-doping system under fire.
WADA spokesman Ben Nichols told NBC Bay Area that those accusations are unfounded. The organization has changed a lot since its inception in 1999, and has been focused more recently on building broader, tougher standards for the anti-doping agencies and sports federations to meet.
“It’s one thing to have good procedures in place,” he said. “It’s quite another for everyone to really focus on doing them well. That’s where we’re at is we need people to really up their game worldwide.”
Conte says WADA isn’t achieving that goal.
He points to reports after the 2012 London Olympic Games that claimed Jamaica’s anti-doping agency, JADCO, wasn’t testing the country’s athletes before the competition.
After the reports emerged, WADA investigated, and director general David Howman told the Associated Press that, “There was a period of…maybe five to six months during the beginning part of 2012 where there was no effective operation. No testing.”
Conte says that the period of time before the Olympics is crucial to an athlete’s training.
“They do intensive weight training, and they build a strength and power and speed base that carries all the way over until when they step into the one hundred meter final in the blocks at the Olympic Games,” he said.
The International Olympic Committee conducts the on-the-ground testing at the games. The most recent data from London 2012 shows that 5,051 athletes underwent testing at the games that year, or roughly half of all athletes. Only 9 athletes tested positive for banned substances, which is fewer than 1 percent.
That’s right in line with WADA’s historical data, though Nichols says that outside research suggests the numbers are actually in the double digits.
Conte agrees that the one percent figure is way off.
“These athletes simply do what they have to do in order to be competitive,” he said. “And I don’t want to say that everybody’s doing it, because I don’t believe that, but I think it’s the overwhelming majority.”
Another loophole in the testing system that Conte points out is the rules regarding missed tests. WADA has established a “Whereabouts Code,” which requires athletes to inform WADA where they will be for one hour each day. That allows WADA to more easily administer randomized testing.
However, athletes are allowed to miss up to two tests each calendar year without repercussions. A third missed test results in a sanction, and that information is publicly available.
Information for athletes who have missed one or two tests is not made available to the public.
Conte compares the system to American baseball. Two strikes does not kick an athlete out. He suggests the two missed tests rule can be manipulated by athletes who've been dopind and are looking to get around testing.
“You step up smack a grand slam, win the gold medal, break the world record, do all these things,” he said. “All you’ve got to do is wait until the oldest one drops off, and now you can take another missed test in the game,” he said.
Last year, the “Wherabouts Code” was changed from 3 missed tests in an 18 month period to 3 missed tests in an 12 month period.
WADA told NBC Bay Area that the change was made in response to a consensus that 12 months was plenty of time for the organization to catch athletes trying to avoid testing. The group also said that shortening the window helped to avoid sanctioning athletes that are simply careless in handling their paperwork.
"The change shows that the system is proportionate, and that the rules do not aim to catch out carelessness," Nichols said. "Rather, they aim to catch those avoiding tests and/or who are doping."
Overall, Conte says skirting the current anti-doping rules is a breeze for athletes. After all, he says he should know.
“Circumventing the testing is as easy as taking candy from a baby,” he said.