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For a Few Atoms More

When the game becomes less of a game

Roald Hoffmann

The Clear and the Cream

Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG)Click to Enlarge ImageThe Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) had a good business going. It provided athletes and their trainers with a variety of performance-enhancing substances. Several BALCO principals have been convicted of various crimes connected with distributing, among other things, anabolic steroids. Two of these substances are of particular interest—"the clear" and "the cream." Barry Bonds received both from his trainer Greg Anderson; Bonds has said he was told the former was flaxseed oil, the latter a rubbing balm for arthritis. Marion Jones said similar things about the substances she got from her trainer, Trevor Graham. Jones said she noticed changes in her body after she stopped using the products and admits "Red flags should have been raised in my head when he [Graham] told me not to tell anyone. . . ." Bonds apparently noticed nothing.

What are these substances, which BALCO principal Victor Conte obtained from chemist Patrick Arnold (more on Arnold below)? Well, it turns out that "the clear" is a solution of a steroid, tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). The skeleton should look familiar. The drug was banned internationally in 2003, but not until a trainer (the above-mentioned Trevor Graham; that's another story) sent a syringe of the stuff to the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Prior to that, no one tested for it—because they didn't know it existed. And "the cream"? That turns out to be mainly our old friend, a mixture of testosterone and epitestosterone, in a ratio that will not trigger an alarm.

Some of the rotten apples in this story are chemists, my own clan. Patrick Arnold pleaded guilty to a count of selling controlled substances (he actually supplied much of the BALCO material). A pro-steroid website lauds this "father of prohormones" as "a chemist who is responsible for the introduction of androstenedione [another anabolic compound] to the market as well as other second and third generation prohormone products." It continues, "Always supporting the industry, Arnold is also the President of the Prohormone Research Organization (PRO), a lobby group assembled from some of the most influential members in the supplement industry as well as the antiaging community. PRO is committed to providing legislators and government officials with truthful, scientific information about prohormones and other dietary supplements." The scientific information that exists (and much work needs to be done) points to long-range biological harm in nonmedical, excessive use of anabolic steroids. But good science is not what Arnold had in mind. Arnold "cut his Ph.D. studies short to pursue his own business venture."

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