When it comes to the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Victor Conte knows a thing or two about beating the system. He did it for years with his Bay-Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), and he paid for it with a brief prison sentence and a scandal that made his name synonymous with doping in professional sports. These days he’s making it his mission to improve drug testing in sports, and as he told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour, he sees plenty of room for improvement in MMA.
It starts with the UFC, which Conte said should be doing more to stamp out PED use, and it extends to state regulatory bodies like the Nevada State Athletic Commission. When UFC president Dana White points to the testing done by agencies like the NSAC and claims that his company is among the most well regulated in all of pro sports, "I don’t buy that at all," Conte said.
"I believe that they could do more. And listen, Dana White’s a very smart man. [NSAC executive director] Keith Kizer’s a very smart man, and he’s an attorney. But the logic for argument that they present in this particular situation just does not fly," Conte told Helwani. "There are options available. Is it ever going to be perfect, is it ever going to be foolproof? The answer is no. But can it be much more effective, and can the use of [testosterone-replacement therapy] and other anabolic steroids and performance-enhancing drugs, can the rampant use be significantly reduced? I believe it can and I believe there’s some simple answers."
For instance, look at the NSAC’s current situation with UFC heavyweight Alistair Overeem, Conte said. After a surprise drug test in Las Vegas came back positive for an elevated testosterone/epitestosterone ratio of 14/1 (1/1 is generally considered normal for most men), the NSAC quickly found itself under the microscope.
Most other regulatory bodies cap the allowable T/E ratio at 4/1, Conte pointed out. Why did the NSAC cap theirs at 6/1? And why wait for Overeem to ask for the B sample to be tested? Why not immediately conduct carbon isotope ratio testing, which can detect the presence of synthetic testosterone even in samples from fighters who are within the allowable T/E range?
"There was a case in 2006 where an Olympic gold medalist from the United States, a sprinter, who, they targeted him because they gathered intelligence that this person may possibly be using testosterone, so they went and collected a sample, and the T/E ratio came back at 0.5/1 -- less than 1/1, which is normal," Conte said. "But they still found that there was synthetic testosterone in his urine, therefore they banned him. It wasn’t used as a follow-up confirmation test that others use, like USADA or the Nevada State Athletic Commission. It’s being used as a screen test."
Kizer has said that the NSAC uses the 6/1 ratio to prevent erroneously labeling as a cheater an athlete who may have naturally elevated testosterone levels. One out of 500 men may have a range somewhere in the neighborhood of 5/1, so it justifies the 6/1 ceiling in Nevada, according to Kizer.
But the way Conte sees it, that’s another situation where carbon isotope ratio testing would help.
"My solution is the following: if you’ve got a guy that comes back at 5.2/1 like Kizer says, all you do is immediately do a CIR test. So whether it’s less than 1/1 or 4/1 or 7/1, whatever it is, that will rule [the question of synthetic testosterone] out. If his carbon isotope ratio test comes back negative, then he doesn’t have synthetic testosterone, then obviously it’s a genetic factor and he won’t be suspended. Makes sense, so there’s a real easy solution."
Then again, maybe it would be easy with unlimited funding, which state agencies certainly don’t have. As Kizer likes to point out, the NSAC is just one regulatory body in one state. How much should it realistically be expected to do all on its own? That’s where the UFC comes in, Conte said.
"I respect Keith Kizer. I think he’s trying to do the best that he can. It’s a very difficult situation, because they have a lack of funding. But I think the UFC could contribute a certain portion to this, and I think it can be much better than it is now. When Dana says, ‘We have the most regulated testing on the planet,’ I think it’s a joke for him to say that. It reminds me of when [Major League Baseball commissioner] Bud Selig, years back, said that baseball had the toughest anti-doping program in American sports. I think both of them know that what they’re saying is simply not true."
That’s why Conte suggested that the UFC go through an independent agency, like the Voluntary Anti-Doping Agency (VADA), which is chaired by former NSAC doctor Margaret Goodman. According to Conte, VADA could randomly test Zuffa’s entire roster of nearly 400 professional fighters twice a year for somewhere between $1-1.5 million.
"The Nevada commission’s testing is weak, okay? It is not effective," said Conte. "VADA is a much better option. USADA, I think, is too expensive for what they do. ...The point I’m trying to make is there are some steps that can be taken, that are cost-effective, that would significantly reduce the use of PEDs in the UFC. I would like to see Dana White take those steps."
As for the use of therapeutic-use exemptions for testosterone-replacement therapy -- a controversial issue that’s come under fire after several high-profile incidents in MMA -- Conte advocated for "a change in policy," saying he’d "never seen an athlete who was not on steroids, that was under 30 years of age, that needed TRT."
He doesn’t favor an outright ban on it, he explained. He even used testosterone treatments himself, beginning at age 46, and "had a very good experience and I saw lots of benefits. So I’m not against it, when it’s appropriate."
Still, Conte said, the current application review process isn’t thorough enough, and he’d like to see a "very strict protocol" enacted for testosterone TUEs. He can’t rule out the possibility that some MMA fighters might genuinely need it, he said, "but do I think 99.9 percent of the cases where they’re granting these is complete B.S.? I do."
As for Overeem, who’s just the latest high-profile fighter to bring the PED issue into the spotlight, Conte can’t help but feel like he’s seen it all before. While some fans and media members have expressed surprise that the Dutch heavyweight has yet to ask the NSAC to test his B sample, Conte isn’t the least bit shocked, he explained.
"It doesn’t surprise me. He probably knows that it will be confirmed. He knows whether he was doing testosterone or not. At a level of 14/1, you do see some up like Kizer said, maybe 5 or 5.2 -- there have been some cases where there’s been up in the eights and nines and tens, and I think there’s even been a natural at 13. But he’s the only one that knows whether he was using or not. My opinion, and that’s all it is, is that he’s as guilty as a three-dollar bill."