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‘Untold: Hall of Shame’ unwinds the BALCO scandal that shook the sports world


Review by Brian Lowry, CNN

(CNN) — Despite having served time for his role in the BALCO scandal, Victor Conte stands out for being unrepentant. The latest edition of Netflix’s sports docuseries “Untold,” “Hall of Shame,” gives him another moment in the spotlight, providing a once-over-lightly rehash of track, football and especially baseball figures who became the focus of controversy over performance-enhancing drugs.

Of course, to hear Conte tell it, the sports world was already rife with the use of banned substances before his company, BALCO, made the pivot in 2000 from supplements to “the clear,” a steroid that had the obvious advantage of being undetectable by testing methods.

Given that, Conte argues that he wasn’t providing players/clients with an unfair advantage as much as simply helping level the playing field, telling the filmmakers, “If those are the real rules of the game, then you’re not cheating.”

The whimsical caper music employed in the early parts of the film rather unfortunately reinforce that mentality, while painting Conte as somebody who professes to take pride in his contribution to sports and adjacency to greatness. Conte might not have stood on the victory stand, but he knows something about claiming victory regardless of the outcome.

Clearly, not everyone shared those views, and “Hall of Shame” makes a compelling case about how steroids made the winning difference for someone like sprinter Tim Montgomery, who shaved his time in the 100 meters from 9.92 seconds when running clean to a world-record-setting 9.78.

“I wanted something so bad at any price,” says Montgomery, one of the few athletes to both admit his use and agree to be interviewed.

Most notably, the documentary focuses on BALCO’s highest-profile connection, baseball slugger Barry Bonds, who, as the film rightly notes, was already likely headed to the Hall of Fame before his sudden explosion of home-run-hitting power. While Bonds has steadfastly denied using PED, the questions have kept him out of the Hall despite his record-setting resume.

“Hall of Shame” does a nice job of conveying the incentive structure that athletes face, and how the lure of winning could eclipse misgivings about seeking a chemically induced advantage. Quick glimpses bear witness to the endorsement deals and fame showered on a track star like Marion Jones, the only athlete imprisoned in connection with the BALCO case after pleading guilty to a perjury charge.

As director Bryan Storkel details, Bonds’ homerun chase came after the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s mad pursuit of baseball’s most-hallowed record, which electrified fans before leaving its own stain on America’s pastime.

In terms of putting all this in context, that task falls to IRS investigator Jeff Novitzky, who calls Conte a “snake-oil salesman” and notes that by administering PED without fully knowing the potential effects, “They were literally using these athletes as guinea pigs.”

“Untold” has specialized in the darker or at least stranger sides of sports, including this season’s documentaries about Jake Paul and Johnny Manziel.

“Hall of Fame” falls short of delivering what would feel like a definitive account of the BALCO story. Yet as someone who seems to make few distinctions between notoriety and fame, Conte falls squarely within that strike zone.

“Untold: Hall of Shame” premieres August 15 on Netflix.

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