Hours before he reported to federal prison for his leading role in a global sports steroid scandal, BALCO head Victor Conte promised on Thursday to redirect his life to fighting doping use by athletes.
A US federal judge in October sentenced Conte, the owner of the San Francisco Bay-area sports nutrition lab, to four months in prison and four months home detention for steroid distribution, starting on December 1.
The high-profile case unveiled links between BALCO and top athletes such as baseball slugger Barry Bonds and track and field star Marion Jones, and prompted sports authorities to beef up anti-doping rules.
"I feel that this is what had to happen," Conte said as he prepared to leave for the privately run Taft Correctional Institution. "It has enabled me to make a contribution in fighting steroids in sport."
"I've done my best from the very beginning to be accountable and this is the punishment that I have been given by the court," he said. "I accept that punishment. I'd like to serve my time and then move on and do what I can to live a positive remainder of my life."
A former bass guitarist, Conte, 55, is a self-taught nutritionist whose gregarious personality and salesmanship gained him entry to top names in sport, many of whom later came to regret the negative publicity the association brought.
"I never did snitch or roll or inform on anyone," Conte said. "And from the very beginning I was a guy of full disclosure. I told all of the athletes I work with to the best of my ability what the risks and returns were of their association with me and the way we approached performance enhancement."
QUESTIONS PLAGUE BONDS
The shadow of the steroid scandal lingers most ominously around Bonds, baseball's single-season home run record holder who is closing on the lifetime record held by Hank Aaron.
Bonds, 41, has said he never knowingly took steroids, but could have unknowingly used BALCO substances out of trust in his boyhood friend and trainer Greg Anderson, who was also set to report to prison on Thursday.
"There has been a lot of negative stuff written about Barry in the newspapers and on television," Conte said. "The few times I've interacted with him, he's been a very fine gentleman. I respect Barry a lot. I think that Barry is not only a great athlete but I think that Barry is a great person."
"I never talked to him about steroids; I've never given him steroids."
Although Conte often joked around with colleagues during court appearances, he appeared particularly somber on Thursday in his first print interview in a year. His voice cracked and he said he had suffered from the flu in recent days.
Conte said he plans to do some writing in prison as part of his efforts to fight sports doping.
"Once I get out [I'd like] to create a greater awareness and acknowledgment of the problem and ultimately I hope to create some change so that others can learn from my mistakes," Conte said.
He suggested that sports authorities step up off-season drug testing. He did not think prosecuting athletes is a good idea, but said he is still considering how sports should respond internally to steroid violations.
"In most cases the athletes involved in the BALCO scandal are good people who came from good families," Conte said. "I would just not like to see any further harm come to anyone."
In the past, Conte's legal arguments suggested federal authorities had unfairly tarred his reputation with overzealous prosecution, but he would not go that far on Thursday.
"They have spent millions and millions of dollars on this case investigating and prosecuting myself," he said. "I guess whether it was worth it or not is a question federal taxpayers will have to answer."