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Victor Conte, the founder of the infamous and now defunct Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), hadn't heard about Pittsburgh Pirates star center fielder Starling Marte's positive test for nandrolone and 80 game suspension on Tuesday when I called him, but he sure knew plenty about nandrolone. In the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, one of the athletes he treated, American shot-putter CJ Hunter, tested positive for the same substance. But Conte never helped administer nandrolone to Hunter or any other athlete. He told them to stay away from it.
In fact, he reiterated to me over the phone his description of nandrolone from a 2012 tweet as the "kiss of death."
It— Victor Conte (@VictorConte) May 19, 2012
Why? Because nandrolone has the unfortunate combination of staying in a person's system for an excessively long time and being detectable at what's called "ultratrace" rates. In nandrolone's case, Conte says the drug stays in a person's system for at least six months, and up to 18 months, from just a single intake. Also, it can be detected at the parts-per-trillion levels.
Which is to say, no athlete subject to a drug testing protocol would willingly take nandrolone; it would virtually guarantee a positive test.
Conte said nandrolone is often detected when an athlete is taking another banned substance—likely testosterone—that was manufactured in an illicit laboratory that doesn't adhere to strict quality standards and also makes drugs for bodybuilders, who, of course, aren't subject to drug testing (the specifics of Marte's positive test are unknown). Because nandrolone can be detected in such low quantities, cross contamination from using the same equipment to manufacture other substances can happen.
For example, Conte said, testosterone is often manufactured using glassware, which needs to be cleaned with nitric and perchloric acids. But illicit labs that manufacture testosterone often don't adhere to such rigid standards. If not, it's quite possible the same equipment was cleaned with less powerful acids, leaving trace amounts of nandrolone on the equipment and, eventually, into the batch of testosterone.
If an athlete tries to appeal a positive test for nandrolone, they would have to establish that a legal supplement or food was tainted. It is possible, but it's an uphill climb. Conte said legal supplements tainted with nandrolone used to be quite common before the mid-2000s when legal reforms forced supplement labs to adhere to stricter standards. But an athlete has to more than establish a tainted supplement was possible. In order to win the case, he would have to provide samples of the supplement from the same lot number that were also tainted. It's also remotely possible meat can be contaminated with nandrolone, since it has been used to bulk up uncastrated boars in certain countries, but only the rarest tainted meat case passes scrutiny since they often require athletes to prove they ate specific, tainted meat supplies. (In one of the most appetizing doping quotes in history, then-WADA Chairman Dick Pound said before the 2000 Sydney Games regarding a spate of positive nandrolone tests, "You can eat boar's testicles all week and not reach that level.")
Conte said that any athlete taking testosterone from an underground lab is running the risk of testing positive for nandrolone. The only way to avoid that risk, he said, is to buy testosterone from a real pharmacy, either with a prescription or through the back door from crooked pharmacists. To borrow a phrase from abstinence classes: when you're taking drugs from an illicit lab, you're also taking the drugs that lab made before it.