Towards the end of ‘Hall of Shame,’ former founder and president of BALCO, Victor Conte, states, "There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” He points out that when you search the names of Marion Jones and Barry Bonds, you see ZMA supplement ads alongside them. He even floats an idea of selling the original BALCO office sign for a buck or giving it to the MLB Hall of Fame. It’s a contrast to the brief remorseful tone Conte exhibits when he recalls his brief four-month jail stint after pleading guilty to providing standards and money laundering.
When it comes to the topic of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, they are generally looked upon as a black eye and a leg up. The 70+ minute documentary looks at the history of BALCO and the competing views and personalities where the investigations and the usage of “the clear and the creme” were at an all-time high. In particular, Conte comes off as someone who wanted to be a part of sports history in any way he could.
He contends from 1984 to 2000, BALCO never gave any athlete an illegal drug – that his laboratories served as an operation of blood testing and formulated legal supplements like ZMA to athletes ranging from the NFL and Track and Field. Then there was this concession that most athletes were taking some performance-enhancing drug. Former sprinter Ben Johnson is highlighted for his subsequent disqualification after breaking the world record in the 100-meter race at the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
A throughline with Conte and former sprinter Tim Montgomery is that they had to do what they had to do to compete. That meant “going to the dark side” and using the then undetectable steroids that gave particular athletes an edge. The program Montgomery was on was called “Project World Record,” and a note mentioned within “Hall of Shame” is that he wore t-shirts with that motto on a shirt during his Modesto Relays run in 2001. A brazen way to call your shot, if you will.
If every story has to have a perceived villain, then “Hall of Shame” has a hero. Then IRS agent Jeff Novitzky was a former athlete in his own right who had aspirations to go to the NBA, and it didn’t happen for him. It’s not hard to see that his feverish pursuit of nailing BALCO as a criminal syndicate (and Conti) is not tied to fighting for the “purity of sports.” It’s an undercurrent throughout the brief documentary with soundbites from former President George W. Bush and more. Novitzky went to extensive measures like going through the garbage outside the BALCO offices each night and almost getting caught.
While it’s fun to see Conte and Novitzky throw barbs at each other about the investigation and sources as a whole, the specter of Barry Bonds’ alleged steroid usage is a recurring question. Conte contends he never gave or discussed using the creme or clear with Bonds and has no knowledge of him taking it. Novitzky’s investigation uncovered some documents from Bonds' former agent, Greg Anderson – particularly a calendar chronicling alleged usage and blood tests. As the Hall of Fame debate rages on, his name repeatedly emerges as a figurehead in this aspect.
Towards the latter half of “Hall of Shame,” there’s a quick hit of the actual investigation into BALCO concerning the raid on the offices 2003. The government’s case resulted in 40 of 42 of the charges being dropped, but the damage was already done in terms of the perception of the athletes associated with this operation. Conte has done a sort of 180-degree turn concerning his role. (which the viewer might find a tad ridiculous). I’d be hard-pressed not to see his 20/20 interview where he implicated athletes like Marion Jones by name and his cooperation in anti-doping efforts a bit self-serving. Are they completely wholehearted? It doesn’t seem so in the totality of this story. Conte likens himself to a salesman that looks to pivot wherever he feels is most profitable.
There’s no doubt there was an insistence on the government to exhibit some moral high ground regarding the role of performance-enhancing drugs during the maelstrom of BALCO. However, organizations such as the MLB cannot deny they also felt the tremors of success during the home run chases of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and then Barry Bonds during the heyday of the long ball. Aside from your feelings about Conte himself, it will be easy to deduce that many people had something to gain in how this unraveled.