They kicked in doors and seized computers. They raided laboratories in Mexico and operated in China. All around the globe they hauled in evidence and hauled off handcuffed criminals.
Over the past four days, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and other federal authorities, in conjunction with nine other countries ranging from Canada to Thailand, unleashed a furious series of raids in "Operation Raw Deal." It was an 18-month effort to curb the global trade of anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs.
The DEA is calling it an unmitigated success, their largest steroids enforcement effort ever.
For the world of sports, it represents both the best- and worst-case scenarios in the fight against drug cheats. It is a potential historic breakthrough toward busting the offenders and cleaning up the games, but also a possible Armageddon of worst fears realized considering the scope of what might be discovered.
The DEA says that due to the massive amount of evidence collected, they will be able to compile a centralized list and database of all the people linked to the case.
Not just the dealers and distributors, but everyone who purchased or received even a single shipment of some kind of performance-enhancing drug linked to this investigation in the United States in the last two years.
The list, a DEA spokesperson said, should contain "hundreds of thousands of names."
For the major professional sports organizations such as the National Football League and Major League Baseball, that list is both a dream come true and a potential nightmare.
Never before has so much evidence been collected. The list is exponentially longer than anything ever previously compiled. While, undoubtedly, it isn't the complete tally of every American involved in this, it is significant. And since the feds aren't even remotely done with the investigation, the list should grow in time.
The database could become the ultimate tool for the NFL and MLB. The leagues could input the names of players, trainers, team doctors, coaches and so on and see what hits.
Rather than the slow drip of leaked names and individual cases that have come to represent the fight against doping, this could be a tidal wave of busts, one giant cleansing of sport.
While the majority of the names on the federal list will have nothing to do with professional sports – amateur body builders or doctors catering to the elderly – common sense says some will be professional athletes.
How many is the question.
The potential numbers here are staggering, the potential impact difficult to fathom. This isn't a BALCO investigation, the busting of a single California lab which netted a couple dozen athletes yet still rocked sports to its core.
This is far greater. It is an opportunity to find out just how widespread doping is in American sports. Consider baseball: Is it five percent of the 1,500 Major League players? 15 percent? 50 percent? The worst-case scenarios are chilling. This is no longer about whether a handful of top players might get caught, although that alone could be devastating. It's about possibly finding out almost no one is legit.
What the leagues would do with the names and information is up to them. MLB might have trouble punishing anyone. Players deserve a presumption of innocence, retroactive punishments can be difficult, and the powerful union likely would argue that receiving a shipment of steroids or HGH does not prove it was used.
The NFL, though, already has established a strict precedent. Its law-and-order commissioner, Roger Goodell, recently suspended New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison for four games not for failing a drug test, but simply for receiving a batch of HGH. That's known as a nonanalytical positive, meaning he was found guilty without scientific proof of use.
If the NFL applies the same standard to every name that comes up, the suspension list could be staggering. One crooked team doctor could crush an entire season.
For Goodell, Selig, Olympics officials and others, pursuing that unknown truth is a mighty risk. But it is a risk they must take if they are to maintain any credibility on doping matters.
There is no choice, nowhere to hide. They can't blame players unions for stopping them. Even if the government tries to be uncooperative and refuses to share the evidence, there is a clear path to strong-arming them.
Back in 2003, when the feds uncovered the athletes in the BALCO case, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency made an appeal for the details.
The Justice Department, however, rejected the request, claiming it was privileged information. But USADA, eager to do all it could to send a clean American team to the 2004 Athens Olympics, turned to Arizona Senator John McCain. He subpoenaed the information and handed it over.
If it comes to it, the NFL, MLB and others must do the same, they must take this as seriously as USADA at the first opportunity. McCain is running for president and almost certainly would welcome the significant publicity of championing the cause of cleaning up sports.
If for some reason he doesn't, there assuredly are other politicians who will.
The leagues have long thrown up their hands at trying to police this shady international underworld. They've claimed they are as diligent as possible given their limited resources. But deep down there was a measure of relief at not being able to discover the extent of the doping.
Well, the DEA may have done it for them.
Suddenly, here is the break that the leagues claimed publicly they always wanted but privately must have feared.
Here comes the truth now, in all its potentially devastating, embarrassing and necessary glory. Hundreds of thousands of names linked to this stuff? How many of them play in the NFL, how many in MLB? How many are Olympians?
There's no excuse now but to find out.