In June 2003, a prominent track and field coach telephoned a reporter. The coach said he was ready to talk about an undetectable steroid being used by top athletes, and he wondered if the reporter could introduce him to the authorities who handle such matters.
And that was not all. The coach had proof.
Less than two weeks later, a clear fluid taken from a syringe arrived at the UCLA drug-testing laboratory of Don Catlin. The fluid was sent by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, with whom the coach was by then cooperating in an investigation.
At the time, Catlin was already secretly assisting a federal probe of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), a California company run by a former Bay Area funk musician that was suspected of selling banned, performance-boosting drugs. Agents were literally poking through BALCO's trash.
In the coming weeks, Catlin came to realize that the two investigations, operating independently of one another, were looking at the same thing from different angles. "I'm now convinced that the federal investigation of the Northern California laboratory and the USADA syringe investigation are one and the same," he wrote to himself in August 2003.
So it was that a molecular pharmacology professor played matchmaker and - with a few phone calls - linked two investigations, helping launch the most far-reaching doping scandal in American sports.
Among those being scrutinized are professional baseball and football players and track and field stars who were spotted by agents at BALCO or who have been linked to BALCO by checks or other documents .
While no athletes have been indicted, four potential U.S. Summer Olympians - 100-meter world-record holder Tim Montgomery and fellow sprinters Chryste Gaines, Michelle Collins and Alvin Harrison - have received letters from the anti-doping agency saying that they could face lifetime bans if it is determined they used illegal drugs.
Unless action is taken before the meet, all four are expected to compete in the Olympic track and field trials that will start Friday in Sacramento, Calif.
The mysterious fluid that helped set the case in motion was originally labeled "Compund X." It would turn out to be a never-before-marketed anabolic steroid called tetrahydrogestinone (THG).
Its biggest benefit to athletes was that no one knew it was out there; even if its existence had not been secret, it would have been tough to uncover.
"On the average, athletes know they want a drug that clears the systems in a matter of two or three days," Catlin said. "THG? We can guess it doesn't hang around for more than a day."
Just because a test now exists to detect THG doesn't mean athletes - possibly this summer at the Olympics in Athens - won't try to cheat. "THG is not the beginning and end of designer steroids," Catlin said. "I'm sure we will uncover more; I can be quite confident of that."
As the informant coach's cooperation suggests, the BALCO case has, from the beginning, been strengthened by the fraying relationships - and loose lips - among suppliers, coaches and athletes.
Like long-distance runners bumping each other in a race, principals in the case, including former friends and confidants - have been trying to nose each other out in the legal arena. In that way, the BALCO case is not much different from others in which the accused don't include athletes and role models.
Among those assisting anti-doping authorities is American sprinter Kelli White, winner of last year's 100- and 200-meter world titles. In May, White admitted taking steroids and received a two-year competition ban from USADA.
In her ultra-competitive world, White believed she needed to cheat to keep up, said Jerrold Colton, her attorney.
"She was losing to athletes that she knew she was better than," Colton said.
Since her admission, he said she has experienced "disappointment in not being able to compete and disappointment in herself." Colton said White might be asked to help decipher BALCO documents, but that "she didn't go wearing a wire or going undercover."
Conte wants a deal
Others cutting a deal - or hoping to - include indicted BALCO owner Victor Conte Jr., whose attorney recently sent a letter to President Bush saying his client "is willing to reveal everything he knows about officials, coaches and athletes in order to help to clean up the Olympics."
Conte is seeking a pledge of no jail time in return.
The White House has said it has no intention of getting involved.
Conte worked with Montgomery for a time after the 2000 Olympics and before Montgomery set the 100-meter mark in 2002. Conte dubbed their collaboration "Project World Record" and had T-shirts made up with that phrase printed on them, according to the San Jose Mercury News. But, like so many principals in the BALCO case, the pair had a falling out.
After that, Conte accused Montgomery of blowing the whistle on him to the International Olympic Committee, according to a package of e-mails and other evidence made available to investigators by Montgomery's lawyers. The lawyers say Conte became "embittered."
"In one of the e-mails, dated July 2002, long after Tim ended his relationship with Conte, Conte writes, 'It is time for Tim to start to cry like a baby. What a dumb [expletive] he is. He could have had the world record and been making a ton of money," said a prepared statement by Montgomery lawyer Cristina Arguedas.
Conte's attorney, Robert Holley, did not return a call seeking comment.
Conte started BALCO after losing interest in a career as a funk and rhythm-and-blues musician in the 1970s that included a stint with the band Tower of Power.
BALCO began as a blood and urine testing laboratory in an industrial complex in Burlingame, Calif. It shared space with a separate firm, also operated by Conte, that sold and marketed nutritional supplements.
BALCO said on its Web site that it offered "high-tech" nutritional evaluations. According to the lab's promotional literature, Conte's success lay in research he had conducted on the importance of minerals, such as zinc and magnesium, to elite athletes' performance.
The literature said BALCO found that athletes such as former Olympic swimming champion Matt Biondi were deficient in minerals that could help them compete.
It all seemed perfectly legal.
Conte has denied that BALCO has been the source of THG. But, according to the Los Angeles Times, he also has said it is not illegal, and has disputed claims that the substance is closely related to certain banned anabolic steroids.
Somehow, the Internal Revenue Service became interested in BALCO.
A September 2003 affidavit reveals a possible reason. "There is further probable cause to believe that Conte is laundering the proceeds of his steroid distribution activities through his personal bank account," the affidavit said.
Beginning in 2002, IRS agent Jeff Novitsky, a rangy, former college high jumper and basketball player, began staking out BALCO. Over the next year, Novitsky snooped and snapped pictures. According to the affidavit, he found empty boxes that allegedly contained human growth hormone and testosterone, an anabolic steroid.
He said that he saw what would have been an autograph hunter's dream: NFL players, major league baseball players, bodybuilders and "an elite international track and field athlete" enter BALCO and quickly depart. The track and field athlete, the affidavit said, had a rolled-up pant leg, indicating he might have received an injection.
Novistky's motives were questioned a few months ago in a Playboy article suggesting his goal was to bring down slugger Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants.
Bonds testified before a grand jury investigating BALCO last year. The slugger's personal trainer, Greg Anderson, is among four men, including Conte, charged in an indictment alleging the distribution of banned substances.
Bonds' attorney, Michael Rains, has denied that his client was provided illegal steroids by Anderson.
Said Catlin of Novitsky's motives: "Jeff is very solid, a straight shooter. I think he really is the hero in all this."
Among other activities, Novitsky periodically went through BALCO's trash, including medical waste.
It was in the trash that Novitsky said investigators found evidence of another effort - this one apparently aborted - of BALCO's signature activity: one person tattling on another.
In three torn versions of a letter, addressed to USADA and an international athletics federation, Conte alleged that "a renowned track and field coach" was supplying steroids to several elite track and field athletes and was strategizing "to avoid detection of the steroid use."
According to people familiar with the BALCO proceedings, the letters referred to Trevor Graham, a track coach in Raleigh, N.C. Graham and Conte have had a stormy enough relationship that some attorneys in the case believe it was Graham who turned in the steroid sample last year that helped BALCO investigators make their case. But there has been no confirmation.
Graham has declined comment, saying that talking to The Sun wouldn't do him any good.
Graham's attorney, Joseph Zeszotarski, said in a prepared statement: "Trevor Graham has never distributed steroids or any illicit substance to anyone, and is in no way involved in any such matters."
Zeszotarski said Graham "is considered by the government to be a witness, not a target."
Graham is potentially an important figure because he once coached Montgomery and his girlfriend, Olympic sprint champion Marion Jones. The two sprinters, who live together with their child, had an acrimonious split with Graham late in 2002.
The split involved money and "Graham's autocratic, one-prescription-fits-all training methods," Jones writes in Life In the Fast Lane, her new autobiography. Also, she says, Graham "hated us [she and Montgomery] being together, and the closer we got the worse Trevor's attitude seemed to get."
After the split, things got even more contentious.
Montgomery told the BALCO grand jury last year that he was often offered steroids - sometimes by Graham himself, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The newspaper said Montgomery testified that Graham provided steroids to one-time shot-put champion C.J. Hunter, Jones' ex-husband, who retired in 2000 after testing positive for steroids.
Zeszotarski denied Montgomery's statements about Graham, calling them the result "of the acrimonious ending of the coaching relationship between Trevor and Mr. Montgomery." The attorney said the relationship was ended by Graham because Montgomery had refused to end his association with Conte and Charlie Francis.
Worked with Francis
Francis is the former coach of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson, who was stripped of his 1988 Olympic gold medal after testing positive for a steroid.
In her book, Jones said she and Montgomery began working with Francis in December 2002.
"Charlie Francis has renounced the use of performance-enhancing drugs and admitted he was wrong to assist Johnson in taking them," Jones writes. "It didn't occur to me I should fear being associated with this expert coach who had spoken out against drugs and who had been involved with so many of my peers."
The USADA has looked into Jones' activities, but the status of its review isn't publicly known. Jones has denied taking performance-enhancing drugs.
It's uncertain whether Jones' former coach or former husband have any evidence against her.
At the 2000 Olympics, Jones sat next to Hunter in Sydney as he faced allegations of failing multiple drug tests. Conte, too, was at the news conference defending Hunter.
But Jones and Hunter split early in 2001. "I simply didn't have any warm feelings left in my heart for C.J. Perhaps he'd killed my trust in Sydney, or even before that," Jones writes in her book. "Perhaps I'd simply outgrown the relationship."
Now, Hunter is cooperating with authorities, and Jones is fighting for her reputation - and the right to participate in the Summer Games.
Catlin, who never asked the name of the coach who sent the steroid sample, said the level of intrigue isn't unexpected.
"I think sport is full of little bad boys and girls. It doesn't surprise me that they're all ratting out on each other," he said.