The history of steroids is richly immersed and runs long and deep, far extending the depths of brevity most conclude. The modern history of anabolic steroids, we may aptly place the beginning in the early 20th century but if we delve deeper we can go back even further but for a true history to be understood we must go back to ancient Greece and only then can we fully understand the magnitude and influence anabolic steroids have had throughout history.
Anabolic steroids did not receive a worldwide audience until the 20th century but the use of pure testosterone can be traced back to the original Olympic Games; keep in mind, it is the hormone testosterone for which all anabolic steroids owe their foundation. Early Olympic athletes, those we may call the fathers of modern athletics were known to ingest animal testicles before a competition; sometimes for extended periods before their meet was to take place. It is doubtful our forefathers understood what they were doing but they were on the right track. One can’t help but wonder who first thought of this novel idea and the idea of eating raw animal testicles is enough to make any stomach turn but as now the same could be said then; if there is an advantage to be had people will find it and grab hold. If we take it down to its bare skin and bones, “Sports Doping” has been going on for thousands of years.
In 1849 a man we may call the father of modern-endocrinology, Arnold Adolph Berthold of Germany first removed testes from Cockerels, a species of birds and concluded the adverse effect indeed led to a loss of male characteristics common to the species. This led to a more apt understanding of the importance of the male testicles, in as they carry with them the necessitating factors that simply make men, men.
Berthold took his experiment a step further by removing the testicles of Cockerels and transplanting them into the abdomen. By doing so he determined the sexual functions of the birds were largely unaffected but rather a vast series of capillaries (1) were formed in connection leading to the conclusion the manner in-which testicles act in correlation with the blood. (2)
Granted, for a further understanding of anabolic steroids as we view them today, Berthold’s experiments do not shed a light comparable to what was to come but it was a first step towards understanding and one that must not be ignored.
To trace the history of steroids as we know them today we must first go back to 1931, to a German chemist Adolf Butenandt. By this point it was understood, largely thanks to Berthold the importance and effects of male hormones but it was Butenandt who first found a way to pin-point and purify the hormone androstenone; he did so by extracting the hormone from a mere few liters of urine. This was a groundbreaking achievement and only the beginning of the breakthrough, as the next several years would see anabolic steroids truly birthed and evolved.
Shortly after Butenandt’s accomplishment another fellow German chemist Leopold Ruzicka developed a means to synthesize the hormone making it safe for human use. Shortly after this breakthrough the snowball was put in place and in 1935 Ruzicka along with Butenandt compounded the first batch of synthetic of testosterone. (3) This was without a doubt the dawning of the ages when it comes to anabolic steroid use and the history there of. The discovery was so profound both Butenandt and Ruzicka were awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize for their work in chemistry. Wrap your head around that; a Nobel Prize was awarded due to anabolic steroid science; as we perceive anabolic steroids today that is mind-blowing!
Research would continue and by the late 1930’s the first injections of testosterone-propionate were administered to humans and in the Soviet Union by the 1940’s anabolic steroid use was becoming common place. During the 1940’s the Soviet Union was the dominating force in athletics thanks to anabolic steroid use but this dominance was short lived as Dr. John Ziegler, the U.S. Olympic team physician found a way to soon develop methandrostenolone; you know it as Dianabol or Dbol. (13)Ciba Pharmaceuticals was first to market the drug and by 1958 Dianabol was approved by the FDA for human use. Ciba would not stop there, in-fact this would open the door for thousands of experiments in synthesizing anabolic steroids and derivatives. (15)
With Ziegler’s breakthrough in the United States, as well as his new found knowledge regarding testosterone use among Soviet athletes, U.S. Olympic lifters would soon find testosterone and Dianabol dosing to be a part of their regular routine. Through the combination of testosterone and Dianabol use the U.S. athletes closed the gap between their Soviet rivals and the age of performance enhancing in sports was born.
Due to evidence that could not be ignored; after all, the impact the drugs were having on athletes was nothing short of phenomenal; numerous U.S. physicians began to implement studies of their own, largely in an effort to curb anabolic steroid use among athletes as it was growing rapidly. Several studies were published implying anabolic steroid use had no positive effect on sports performance in effort to stem the use but the athletes did not take notice; in-fact, through the 1960’s countless new anabolic steroids were synthesized and what was found to be supposedly true on paper did not translate into real life.
In Germany perhaps more so than any other country, anabolic steroid research and development was at its peak. Through their research Germany would become the most dominating force in sports around the world; to this day the German research of this era is perhaps the largest and most in-depth we have available. (5)
Through the 1960’s and into the 1980’s the anabolic expansion was underway; year after year would see new and improved anabolics hitting the shelves of your local RX. Isolation and altering of hormones was being perfected; esterification of testosterone was improving it would seem almost daily and the options would appear to be endless. By this stage in the game, if you had a taste for anabolic steroids there was definitely something for you; there was something for everyone.
By 1967 anabolic steroid use was widespread among Olympic athletes, particularly among weight lifters and even though many adamant U.S. physicians stated no benefit to anabolic steroid use and athletic performance, despite this the International Olympic Council (IOC) banned the use of anabolic steroids; shortly after, the majority of major sports governing bodies would follow suit. By 1972 we would witness the first shot fired in the impending war on steroids, as it was then, the IOC began implementing a full-scale drug testing program for all athletes. (8)
With the new found IOC drug testing in place; at first glance it may have appeared dark for athletic anabolic use. The new IOC testing program put in place was a seemingly fool-proof method known as a “Testosterone/Epitestosterone Test.” The testing was simple; testosterone levels were measured; this can easily be done via blood test or urine to a lesser degree; if testosterone levels were found to be six (6x) greater than that of the athletes epitestosterone levels the IOC could readily assume exogenous testosterone was being used. It is almost unheard of for any individual to have a greater than 6:1 ratio of these hormones but anabolic science would prove to be a step ahead of the game. Thanks German thinking, testosterone that could be used and clear of the system in as little as three days was ready for action; an athlete could administer testosterone therapy all the way to three days prior to testing, stop and be clean and free. (6) If this wasn’t enough, the German based Jenapharm would develop a synthetic epitestosterone for their athletes to take in order to give 100% assurance all hormonal levels were within IOC guidelines. You bet, it’s safe to say, Germany gave the IOC the beating of their life.
Germany would remain undetected for years to come; it was not until the early 1990’s when they would finally be caught. With the German scandal now making world headlines, this would be one of the many nails to be found plunged deep in the coffin of anabolic steroid use and what would lead to how we often perceive them today.
As revealing as the German scandal was and as deep as it ran there was another case of Olympic anabolic steroid use many point to as the beginning of the end. The 1988 Olympic Games would see Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson defeat handedly the American Carl Lewis in a race that was supposed to be a Lewis victory before it even began. After his victory, it was soon discovered Ben Johnson had used anabolic steroids as part of his training; he was stripped of his gold and it is this instance many point to as being the beginning of the end.
Through the years anabolic steroids were widely available, even in the U.S. After a time the U.S. FDA would classify them as prescription only but this was basically meaningless; it was only a label and anabolic steroids were still just as widely available; they were yet to be controlled substances. This would soon change; in 1988 the tide began to shift with the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, effectively putting anabolic steroids in more stringent category, one that stipulated severe legal penalties for illegal sale or possession with intent to distribute. For the first time since their inception anabolic steroid possession and distribution was considered a felony in the U.S.
In 1988 the war had just begun and it would reach a fatal blow a mere two years later as the United States Congress would pass the 1990 Steroid Control Act effectively labeling anabolic steroids as “Schedule III", along with amphetamines, methamphetamines, opium, and morphine; as the law now reads, illegal possession of anabolic steroids or distribution is viewed no differently than the after mentioned drugs effectively carrying the same penalties for buying or selling them.
It should be noted, as it has always been a bit of an interesting quam, with the passage of the Steroid Control Act four various Federal entities were called to back and support the bill; the FDA, the AMA, the DEA and the NIDA; all four opposed the ban and denied their support. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of detail we can give you on this; the federal government blatantly ignored the advice they asked for and reasoning for the lack of support has rarely been spoken of since. However, during the floor hearings for the bill, all four agencies emphatically stated there was no medical or legal reason to call for classifying anabolic steroids as schedule III narcotics.
For the majority of the 1990’s after the original Steroid Control Act, steroid news would begin to take a back seat; according to the “experts” anabolic steroids had been beaten and put in its rightful dead to rot place; they could not have been more wrong. Ironically, it would also be in the 1990’s when anabolic steroids began to see heavy use by the medical community to improve survival rates of AIDS and Cancer patients, when it was discovered that loss of lean body mass was associated with increased mortality rates respective to these diseases (14). With this discovery some, including the four governing bodies mentioned during the Steroid Control Act have asked one serious perplexing question; if anabolic steroids are bad for you and will kill you if you’re healthy, how is it they are good for you and will save your life if you are sick? Raise your hand if you have a good answer for that one.
By the year 2000 anabolic steroids would again see major headline news and since this time there seems to be no stopping it; the war wages on. With the advent of Pro-hormones to the market thanks to Patrick Arnold and what has been so inappropriately labeled “The Steroid Era” of baseball, anabolic steroids soon found themselves to be public enemy number one.
The steroid frenzy in baseball became an all-out mockery in the public eye; one of the last major sports programs in the country to implement testing made the shock value and revelation a bit “are we surprised” by many but not to be out done was the U.S. congress, spending more time on cleaning up baseball than domestic policy. With Roger Maris’ homerun record being eyed by many and the chase being led by quite a few, it was only natural for anabolic steroids to come into play. It didn’t help matters when Mark Mcgwire was spotted by a reporter as having a bottle of Androstendione in his locker. Although androstendione is not a steroid, and is simply a pro-hormone, the word steroids were again found circulating in the news on a nightly basis.
Shortly after McGwire’s unfortunate pro-hormone debacle Congress would once again convene with a host of Major League Baseball players called to testify. The circus was viewed as a joke by most in the public but congress stood firm and reinforced the original Steroid Control Act of 1990 with the now seemingly bullet-proof Steroid Control Act of 2004. Now pro-hormones were added to the list and the definition of what could be listed as Schedule III took on a new meaning. The definition of an anabolic steroid as defined currently in the United States under (41)(A) is an "anabolic steroid" means any drug or hormonal substance, chemically and pharmacologically related to testosterone (other than estrogens, progestins, corticosteroids, and dehydroepiandrosterone (7).
As the law has become ever so stringent, steroid use in the U.S. and the world over shows no signs of slowing down; in-fact, all signs point to it growing; have you been to a gym lately, look around. The decline the U.S. Congress wished to create by legislation has worked as well as such legislation often does; not at all. For example, among 12th graders surveyed in 2000, 2.5% reported using steroids at least once in their lives, while in 2004 the number was 3.4% (9). A recent internet study also concluded anabolic steroid use among weightlifters and bodybuilders continues (12), and by all accounts, there are no signs of it stopping in athletics any time soon.
In addition, medical use of anabolic steroids for a variety of health problems continues; ranging from the treatment of Andropause and Menopause to speeding the recovery in burn victims to helping improve quality of life in Aids patients, to helping fight breast cancer and stave off osteoporosis. The list goes on and on and is truly too long and detailed to sum up.
In short, medically, anabolic steroids are still used and used rapidly and with great purpose. Athletically as long as athletes desire to be the best, as long as performance is always rewarded as it should be, anabolic steroid use will be there and new methods and formulas will be found. The history of steroids as you can see is not something written in a scroll, it is not a tale of old; the history of steroids began a long time ago and this history is being written every single day.
1. Maisel AQ. The Hormone Quest (1965) Random House
2. Kochakian CD. J Nutr (1935) 23 135
3. Kenyon AT et al. Endocrinology (1938) 23 135
4. Kochakian CD. Handbook Exp Pharmacol (1975) 43 1
5. Clinical Chemistry. 43, No7, 1997.
6. Clausnitzer, et al [Article in German] 1982.
7. United States Congressional records.
8. Vet Hum Toxicol. 2003 Mar;45(2):97-102.
9. United States Bureau of Statistics, 2005.
10. National Institute on Drug Abuse
11. United States Drug Enforcement Agency
12. Clin J Sport Med. 2005 Sep;15(5):326-30.
13. Marti Henneberg, C, et al. J. Pediatr 6;783-88. 1975.
14. Journal of the American Medical Association, Editorial. April 14, 1999, vol 281, No. 14.
15. Steroids. 1996 Aug;61(8):492-503.