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Hunter: `It's been going on for a long, long time'

C.J. Hunter & Marion Jones
C.J. Hunter & Marion Jones
RALEIGH, NC.--- Four years ago, his reputation melting in the glare of doping rumors, C.J. Hunter did something unusual, at least by his taciturn standard: He called a news conference.

A series of failed drug tests seemed to show that Hunter, a world-class shot putter, was a world-class drug cheat. Flanked by his wife, track superstar Marion Jones, and an obscure Bay Area nutritionist named Victor Conte Jr., Hunter tearfully insisted that the test results must be mistakes.

His protests were met mostly with skepticism. He abruptly retired, got divorced the next year, and tried to disappear.

Today, his ex-wife is in Greece, competing in the Olympic long jump, trailed by allegations of her own steroid use. Conte, now a close friend, is under federal indictment, accused of being the mastermind of the Balco Laboratories drug scandal.

And Hunter -- a vital, if reluctant, witness against both -- has been pulled back into the frenzy of all that he tried to escape after Sydney.

In a rare interview, his first since the Balco indictments were announced in February, Hunter told the Mercury News that the case and his role in it were things he did not ask for, could not control and has tried to avoid.

``The drug culture is the way it's been for so long in track and field, and now all of a sudden it's a big deal,'' Hunter said. ``Everyone is acting like it's just started -- like, `Where did this come from?' It's been going on for a long, long time.''

That is not his world anymore, Hunter said. Now 35, he is a working-class man in Wake County, N.C. He is a husband again and raising two children from his first of three marriages. He's restoring an old Chevy with his 11-year-old son, Cory. He hopes his daughter Ahny, 13, makes the cheerleading team. In that world, he is not asked about the past or what he calls ``business.''

But ``business'' has come calling, finding him in a small North Carolina town keeping his mouth shut and his head low, even as it sported a baseball cap emblazoned with a logo for ZMA -- Conte's legal nutritional supplement.

Complicated relationships

Cottrell Hunter III is not watching the Olympics on NBC. He's watching ``Monster House'' on the Discovery Channel. He's done with track and field.

``It's no different from horseshoes, except for the media coverage,'' the 6-foot-1, 330-pound former world champion said.

But track and field and the forces that have interest in it are not done with him.
He must deal with inquiries from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and federal investigators probing Balco. Hunter described this new world as unwelcome and topsy-turvy. It's a place where people who were once spouses have turned into legal enemies and where his job is threatened by what he was forced to reveal.

Hunter's Raleigh-based lawyers, Angela and Rusty DeMent, would barely let him answer questions about Jones, a sign of just how complicated his role in the ongoing Balco investigation is.

In the interview, Hunter was often defensive. He would block questions he didn't like by crossing his thick, muscled arms. ``That's all you are going to get,'' he would say, or ``End of story.''

At other times, he was nonchalant about his former wife and their life together. Hunter said that it was only last week that he flipped through her recently published autobiography, ``Marion Jones: Life in the Fast Lane.'' In it, Jones denies taking performance-enhancing drugs and tells how Hunter's positive tests hurt their marriage.

Hunter didn't mention any of that. He just said that she spelled his son's first name wrong and said he grew up in Pennsylvania. He was raised on Long Island in New York.

A suspicious past

Whether Hunter likes it or not, his role in the Balco scandal has again entangled him with the world's most popular track athlete. Earlier this summer, he told Internal Revenue Service investigators, anti-doping officials and a federal grand jury that Jones took steroids before, during and after the Sydney Olympics. He also alleged that he and Jones received packages of drugs from Conte and from her former coach, Trevor Graham.

Jones' legal team declined to be interviewed this week, but in the past it has denied Hunter's charges, calling him an embittered ex-husband who has his own messy history as a drug cheat.

As he has since Sydney, Hunter says he wasn't a dirty athlete. He also expresses a renewed desire to fight his positive tests from four years ago. He said he has no intention of hurling a 16-pound steel ball again, describing the sport he left in 2000 as ``silly'' and ``so dumb.''

But he envisions other, more personal triumphs.

He talked about standing in front of a bank of television cameras once more, reading a list of everyone who has accused him of drug use -- and then showing them all his middle finger.

As a first step in fighting the tests in 2000 that showed the steroid nandrolone, the DeMents want to get the results and determine if they can be analyzed further.

``If I wanted to do it and I had all this access to undetectable drugs, I would take them,'' Hunter said. ``I'm not going to take the one drug you can't get rid of.''

His quest for credibility goes beyond personal rehabilitation or retribution. It is paramount to any case prosecutors and anti-doping agents hope to make from his testimony. And make no mistake: His credibility is in question, and not just by Jones' team. His sport's final glimpse of him was as he walked away in the haze of a drug scandal. That's the image that sticks.

``How does any of that affect my eyes, my memory?'' Hunter said. ``What does one have to do with another? If I took the drugs, that would make me credible? Then I would know what I was talking about?''

Of the four positive tests for nandrolone, Hunter has long said they were inadvertently caused by a contaminated iron supplement he bought in Rome.

Dr. Gary Wadler, a leading authority on doping, said nutritional-supplement contamination is a common defense by athletes. Although he agreed that contamination is possible, he said it seemed improbable that Hunter's failed drug tests -- with urine tests showing 1,000 times the legal limit of nandrolone -- were mistakes.

``You would have to take handfuls and handfuls and handfuls of these things,'' Wadler said. ``In a practical sense, it would be a stretch to conclude that was from inadvertent consumption of supplements that were contaminated.''

Jones' team hasn't been so diplomatic, branding Hunter a drug-taking liar with an ax to grind. Reminded of that, Hunter leaned forward and animatedly described a scenario where he would take a polygraph test on live television.

Asked if he was bitter about his divorce, he sat back and smirked.

``I'm just crushed,'' he said.

The impact at home

Earlier this month, engulfed by negative publicity from Hunter's testimony about helping Jones take steroids, North Carolina State transferred him from his job of four years as an assistant strength coach of the football team. A prepared statement released by the school at the time said Hunter's contract, which expires next year, would be honored ``unless the university receives confirmation that these allegations are true.''

Athletic Director Lee Fowler did not return messages seeking comment on the reasons Hunter was moved.

Hunter is in limbo, but he said he understands the school's position. The only thing he will balk at, he said, is a job that requires him to wear a tie.

Still, Hunter clearly misses his lost kingdom of bench presses and squats.

Wearing a T-shirt with a ``Pack Power'' logo, Hunter talked about his loving care of the weight room and his job as part of ``a family.''

Now strangers ask him questions about a doping scandal. He is angry about the media showing up to tape television footage at his son's Pop Warner football games and ambushing him at work.

``How about they take all the money that they are using to do this and take all the families that have someone who died in Iraq and why don't we split it among them,'' he said. ``Get that situation cleaned up and get those people home. Handle homeless people and things that are important, and then we will talk about why people run fast.''

`I never cared that much'

At his country home near Raleigh, less than an hour from where Jones lives with her new family, Hunter waits to see how his role in the scandal will play out.

He sometimes wishes he could disappear again. He would be all right, he said, as long as he could be with his kids, his new wife and his cable TV.

Four years ago, he was an elite track and field star, married to one of the most glamorous athletes on the planet. Four years ago, he unleashed a gargantuan throw of 71 feet, 9 inches, a distance that would have won Olympic gold last week in Athens.

``I never cared that much,'' he said. ``I did it because I was good at it. I just want to go home and hang out and watch TV. I want to watch my son play football and watch my daughter grow up and do cheerleading.

``I want to be left alone.''

Copyright 2006 by, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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