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Wednesday, April 05, 2006 

Book Review: Game of Shadows

Fainaru-Wada, Mark and Lance Williams. Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports. New York: Gotham Books, 2006. 352 pp.

"So with few exceptions, the more than three dozen athletes who appeared before the grand jury admitted taking steroids . . . They weren't asked why. Perhaps the answers were too obvious: It was to run faster, jump higher, hit the ball farther, and ultimately, make more money. Some of the confessions were grudging and evasive. Others were extremely forthcoming. It came down to the same thing: Competitive sports, it turned out, was part mirage, a game of shadows" (p.197, emphasis mine).

Overview of the Book

Game of Shadows is a book that is hard to read for a sports enthusiast like myself. It reads more like a seedy novel about local government corruption than an expose on the recent steroids debacle in professional baseball and Olympic track and field. Lies told before the grand jury; greedy, angry track coaches turning state's evidence, and egotistical, success-driven athletes willing to put their lives on the line for the edge that might secure their own immortality are just a few of the storylines you will find in this book by the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters that first broke the story of the grand jury probe into the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) and its hippie-turned-nutritionist-turned-steroids-dealer-to-the-stars Victor Conte.

The story begins in 1998, barely two months into the baseball season that would serve to resurrect the sport still ailing from almost three decades of labor disputes, culminating in the August 1994 strike that "led to the only cancellation of the World Series since World War I" (p.xi). In that year Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa would awe the fans with their race to Roger Maris's record-breaking 61 homeruns. McGwire would ultimately take the coveted prize, racking up 70 homers to Sosa's 66. But that year would also eventually be clouded by a bottle of pills labeled "Androstenedione" found in McGwire's locker by a curious reporter. This led to speculation regarding legal supplements used by baseball players. But that was only the beginning . . .

In Chapter One Victor Conte is introduced as the genius behind the success of the track and field superstar Marion Jones. Over the course of the next few chapters the authors in dramatic fashion weave a tale of backroom deals, money-laundering, and good old-fashioned sports doping, to arrive at what would prove to be the largest network of steroid trafficking in both baseball and track and field in U.S. history. And behind it all was Victor Conte, with his premier athletes: the future Hall of Famer Barry Bonds, and once crowned "world's fastest woman," Marion Jones.

The authors explain how Conte took his knowledge of nutritional products (which ironically many doctors dismissed as foolhardy) and, when facing bankruptcy, turned it into a multi-million dollar drug trafficking operation. Conte's assent to the throne of sports infamy began with a small nutrition store he and his then-wife Audrey opened in 1983. From there, his intelligence and quick learning aided him in winning many clients beginning with Willy Cahill, a former judo champion, to invest in his ideas about mineral deficiencies in athletes. Capitalizing on this, his small outfit he named the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative or BALCO for short, attracted many more clients, some of whom would provide him with the connections that would lead him to superstar athletes like Bonds and Marion Jones.

Conte was able to meet men like Patrick Arnold, who was busy developing a substance nicknamed "The Clear" from the all but forgotten Russian-developed steroid norbolethone, and Emeric Delczeg, a 47-year old bodybuilder that supplied Human Growth Hormone (HGH) to professional bodybuilders and NFL players like Bill Romanowski. Through these men he met others like Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds childhood acquaintance who became his personal trainer and supplier of performance-enhancing drugs, and former Soviet track coach Remi Korchemny, who now trained many elite U.S. track stars and had connections to countless others. Eventually Conte used the marketing of his legal product, ZMA (zinc magnesium/monomethionine aspartate) to front his steroid trafficking.

In 2003, Conte's world began to unravel. Jeff Novitzky, a Special Agent with the IRS's Criminal Investigations unit (IRS CI), started to investigate BALCO for money-laundering and drug trafficking. Later that year Trevor Graham, the track and field coach for Tim Montgomery who had previously had a falling out with Conte, decided he would get back at his former steroid supplier and called a reporter in North Carolina with news that he had a syringe with a substance undetectable to drug tests that athletes on the West Coast were using to enhance their performances. On December 3, 2003 agents raided BALCO's storefront offices on the Peninsula near San Francisco and by the end of the next year over a dozen premier athletes would testify before the grand jury as to their involvement with Victor Conte and their use of illegal and banned performance-enhancers.

For his part, Barry Bonds never admitted to using the drugs. He claimed he did not know which products his trainer Greg Anderson was providing him, despite documents and testimony to the contrary. Marion Jones played the same denial game, eventually pulling out of competition in 2004 amid rumors that the new tests for THG (the name given to "The Clear" by the scientists that first examined it for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency [ADA]), had stunted her ability to compete on the level to which she had previously been accustomed. In the end, the authors leave you with a bad taste in your mouth for competitive sports and wishing that you hadn't taken the red pill and didn't know how deep the rabbit hole would go.

Why Christians Should Read This Book

Toward the end of the book, the authors report on the now infamous hearing that took place before the House Government Reform Committee in which baseball stars Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa testified about steroid use in baseball. Among those who would testify were baseball commissioner Bud Selig, players' union chief Donald Fehr, and Denise and Ray Garibaldi, parents of Rob Garibaldi, a former junior college baseball standout who took his life on October 1, 2002, likely suffering from depression brought on by extensive steroid use that Rob claimed was necessary if he was to make it to the Big Leagues. Rob explained to his mother when she confronted him earlier in 2002 that he knew that major leaguers were using the same illegal products he had been injecting into his young body for the past five years. The Garibaldi's sat in stunned silence as the athletes at the hearing dodged questions regarding steroid usage.

This story illustrates the fact that steroid use has become rampant among high schoolers who see their idols bulking up in inexplicable ways to the detriment of their futures bodies. Steroids are already common in bodybuilding, but in recent years, amid weak testing and blatant ignorance, they have tricked down into the locker rooms of would-be athletes, many of whom are impressionable Christians pressured to perform by teammates, classmates, administrators, fans, and unfortunately, even parents who dream of elite scholarships and big professional contracts for their children. All Christians need to come back often to the reality that men are depraved, that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV) It is important for us as Christians to have a reasoned response to those who destroy their bodies in pursuit of vain glory. This book, above all else, shows evil men engaging in wicked acts to fuel their perverse egos. We should all take inventory of ourselves and those around us who may fall into the same traps.

Problems With the Book

Despite the overwhelming evidence that the authors skillfully adapt into a dramatic narrative, they, in the interest of this approach, often leave the reader confused as to when events transpire and as to the timeline in relation to other occurrences detailed in the book. It would be helpful to the reader for them to include another Appendix in the back with a timeline covering major events in relation to each other. Also, the authors employ a moderate amount of profanity, mostly through quotes made by the major players in the narrative. Still, the Christian reader should be informed that were the book a movie, it would receive an 'R' rating. And finally, despite the fact that the book is well-written and incredibly informative, the authors at times go overboard to provide details that serve more to bog down the narrative than to inform the reader. An example of this is found in Chapter Seven when the authors detail the blossoming relationship between Greg Anderson and Barry Bonds. The authors could have sliced this chapter in half and still given the reader all that he needed to connect the two.

Overall Rating

I would give this book an overall rating of 7 syringes out of 10. The book was informative, well-written, and hard to put down. The authors cover a great deal of material in a short format and from the beginning they suck the reader into a story that is bound to keep us intrigued for years to come, especially now that Major League Baseball has launched a new investigation into steroid use by its players and as Barry Bonds continues to receive criticism from fans.

Hey, great review. you should do these more often. very well done. it made me wish i didn't already hate baseball.

Great review! You've saved me so much time!


another reason, kevin morse is a great guy: baseball hater

but seriously, d.r. two posts in three days!?! slow down there, banshee! i'd hate to see what kind of remission that causes you to go into. should i check back in about 3 weeks?

- sean

Hey, you guys need to slow down on your baseball hatin'. I grew up watching WGN and the Cubs and going to AA games for the Royals affiliate in Memphis. I take America's Pastime seriously. Sean don't be mad that baseball is more popular than Hockey.

And I promise to post more. I know I am infrequent, but hopefully that will get better.

Yeah, yeah. About the more frequent postings. I love ya, DL. But c'mon. You ain't gonna post nothin' 'till after Good Friday. We all know this. Prove me wrong.

And eat some raw Salmon.

Love ya.


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About me

Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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