An international investigation code-named Operation Raw Deal that culminated in the last four days could produce the next steroids scandal in sports – and perhaps the biggest yet.
The undercover operation led by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration resulted in the seizure of massive amounts of anabolic steroids from an illegal underground network and the ability to identify hundreds of thousands of people who received steroids and other substances used by some athletes as performance-enhancing drugs, a DEA spokesman told Yahoo! Sports on Sunday.
Most of the raids took place in the United States, and the DEA called the steroids crackdown the largest in U.S. history. DEA offices in New York and San Diego provided lead guidance during an investigation that resulted in 124 arrests and seizures at 56 labs across the country. Investigators also seized 71 weapons, 27 pill presses, 25 vehicles and three boats, but the coveted item was illegal drugs, and the DEA said it intercepted a staggering quantity.
Also, federal officials are creating a database of names of the people who received steroids, human growth hormone (HGH) and other drugs banned by most sports leagues and athletic associations, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said.
"I have no information about any athletes yet," Payne said when asked about the names in the database and others implicated in the case. But he acknowledged the possibility of athletes being linked to the investigation that focused largely on steroids, HGH and other drugs being manufactured by Chinese companies and flooding the U.S. market.
"Of course, performance-enhancing drugs are an issue right now," Payne told Yahoo! Sports during a telephone interview. "They're in the news, and they're in the news because there have been athletes that have been tied to them. We know that's what this story is."
Steroids, HGH and other drugs seized in the raids promote muscle growth and speed recovery from injury, and athletes have used them despite the risk of suspensions and permanent bans from sport.
Whether Major League Baseball, the NFL and other sports bodies can gain access to the database and search for athletes who received substances banned by the respective sports organizations will be up to top officials at the Justice Department and DEA, according to Payne.
"Anything is possible," he said.
Typically, DEA investigations focus on drug suppliers and dealers. But now that the DEA has the ability to identify the largest numbers of people who received illegal shipments of drugs during Operation Raw Deal, Payne said, "If you are one of those people, you could get a knock at your door."
U.S. officials enlisted the help of China and eight other countries in an investigation targeting more than 35 Chinese companies that produce raw materials used to make steroids and HGH and, in some cases, finished product, sold illegally on the global underground network, Payne said.
China has emerged as the leading supplier of illicit steroids and HGH since the DEA began targeting Mexican suppliers two years ago. U.S. authorities said the operation that shut down steroids manufacturers in Mexico temporarily cut into the supply in the United States, but Chinese suppliers stepped in.
Last week, Yahoo! Sports obtained documents that showed HGH imported from China was seized in the Signature Pharmacy scandal. High-profile athletes linked to that investigation, launched by the district attorney in Albany County, N.Y., include baseball players Rick Ankiel, Gary Matthews Jr., Troy Glaus and Jay Gibbons; NFL safety Rodney Harrison; boxer Evander Holyfield; and a dozen pro wrestlers.
The role of Chinese companies in supplying steroids to the underground market figures to be sensitive for China considering the country will play host to the Olympics in Beijing next August. But the investigation could prove even more damaging to the world of sports.
Major League Baseball has scrambled to control recent news leaks of players connected to the Signature scandal. Last week, an arbitration panel upheld the results that showed American cyclist Floyd Landis used synthetic testosterone during his riveting comeback victory in the 2006 Tour de France. And for months, during his successful quest to overtake Hank Aaron as baseball's all-time home run king, Barry Bonds reignited controversy from a steroids scandal stemming from a 2003 raid of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) that ensnared Bonds and several other well-known athletes.
On Monday, the sports world will learn of the latest potential bombshell. Officials are scheduled to announce details of Operation Raw Deal during news conferences in New York and San Diego.
Investigators hauled in countless bags and boxes loaded with steroids that have a street value potentially exceeding $50 million, Payne said. The stockpile included 11.4 million doses of steroids, which based on the 0.5 milliliter per dose used by the DEA for calculations, amounts to about 570,000 vials that each hold 10 milliliters.
Payne said he had no figures for the amount of HGH and other drugs seized in an operation that involved the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the FBI, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center.
"These buyers are solely motivated by a desire to gain an unfair competitive advantage by using illegal performance-enhancing substances," said Terry Vermillion, Director of the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations, in a statement provided to Yahoo! Sports.
But Payne said rather than catching athletes who use banned drugs, the objective was to stanch the flow of illegal steroids and other drugs into the United States. Most of the drugs seized in the investigation were cooked up "in filthy conditions with no regard to safety," according to the DEA.
The Internet has emerged as a popular source for those seeking performance-enhancing drugs without the required prescription, prompting Operation Raw Deal to employ a four-pronged strategy. The investigation targeted U.S.-based web sites that distribute materials such as conversion kits necessary to turn raw steroid powders into finished product; Internet body building discussion boards that teach individuals how to use, locate and discreetly purchase steroids; raw material manufacturers and suppliers in China and other countries; and underground steroids labs in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Other countries involved in the coordinated international crackdown included Belgium, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Thailand.
"Operation Raw Deal uncovered a clandestine web of international drug dealers who lurk on the Internet for young adults craving the artificial advantage of anabolic steroids," Karen P. Tandy, the DEA administrator, said in a statement.
In addition to steroids and HGH, the operation targeted Insulin Growth Factor and underground trafficking of ancillary and counterfeit medications. Other drugs seized included cocaine, marijuana, Ecstasy, painkillers, anti-anxiety medications and Viagra.
The DEA lauded Chinese officials for their participation in the effort, but whether China disciplines the manufacturers or discloses information remains to be seen. U.S. officials provided Chinese authorities with information packets about more than 35 Chinese companies that allegedly supplied raw materials for steroids, HGH and other performance-enhancing drugs and are involved in the illicit underground trade around the world. But U.S. officials will withhold the names of those companies in deference to China.
DEA officials said they launched the operation in large part because of health risks in taking drugs that often are mislabeled. The potential side effects include strokes, liver damage and heart disease, experts say.
Though the impact of Operation Raw Deal on sports remains uncertain, the DEA's work is not done when it comes to a crackdown on the illegal trafficking of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, Payne said.
"This is not a case with a beginning and an end," he said. "I like to look at it more as an initiative.
"This is a huge initiative."