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Steroids In Sports

The story of steroid use in sports began just before the World Weightlifting Championships of 1954. The Soviets had made their Olympic debut in Helsinki in 1952, and made quite an impact, but nothing compared to the show they put on in 1954. That year, the Soviets easily dominated most of the weight classes. As the story goes, John Ziegler (team physician for the United States) questioned the soviet team´s doctor after the medals were given out, and the soviet doctor said that his team had been receiving testosterone injections. That, in all probability, was the first time anyone had ever used anabolic steroids to enhance performance in an athletic event. According to some unconfirmed sources, testosterone preparations were used by Germany´s Olympic team in 1936 for the Berlin Olympics. At that time, there were rumors that an Olympic medal winner had previously used oral Testosterone preparations, but the benefit to be had from them (due to the technology at the time regarding oral testosterone) would have been minor. In the case of the Soviets, however, rumors of discarded syringes in their dressing rooms made it clear that they were not using oral steroids, they were using something different. And everyone wanted to know what it was.

That wasn't, however, the first time anabolic performance enhancement had been attempted. As far back as the original Olympic Games in ancient Greece, athletes ingested various herbs and foods with the hopes of improving their performance. The big winner in the 480 B.C. Olympic Games said he ate nothing but meat for 10 months prior to the Games. Now we know that meat is especially high in B vitamins and Creatine, both of which can enhance performance. Early attempts to increase Testosterone were documented as early as 776 BC andagain, by Olympic athletes´ ingested sheep´s testicles, which they knew to be a source of Testosterone production (3). Although it might seem extreme to us now, to eat meat for ten straight months (or to ingest sheep testicles), this was a small price to pay for the prize money that was offered back then & up to 1,200 days pay for winning an event was common. There were no participation medals; they did not compete for the love of the game, to give it their best shot, or even for pride. They competed for money and prestige, end of story (1). And that is why they sought out performance enhancers.

If that story sounds familiar, like perhaps one you´ve heard on TV or in magazines concerning modern-day steroid use in sports, it should. Athletes´ today- especially professional athletes- have very lucrative contracts and sponsorship deals, and steroids are known to enhance performance, reduce and repair injuries, and lengthen careers. So it should be no surprise to most people that when Dr.Ziegler returned from the World Weightlifting Championships, he immediately began researching testosterone and trying to develop something better for his Athletes.

What Dr. Ziegler developed, with the help of the Ciba pharmaceutical company was called "Methandrostenolone" or Dianabol. This was the creation of the first anabolic steroid that wasn´t simply testosterone. That was late in 1956. By the time the early 1960s rolled around, Ziegler´s weightlifters were dominating American weightlifting. And since then, many different steroids, each with their own different set of characteristics, have been developed.

By the late 1960´s the East Germans had also entered the fray and were giving steroids to their athletes as part of a state sponsored program to bolster national pride by winning Olympic Gold Medals. In 1968, Dr. Manfred Hoeppner, East Germany´s Chief Medical Officer, wrote and submitted a report to the government in which he recommended the total collective administration of steroids to the entire East German athletes (2). In the couple of decades that followed after this report, the East Germans´ presence was felt at every major world wide sporting event. From the Olympics to World Championships, they took home both medals as well as world records.

Of course, there have been other documented instances of athletes taking various drugs and other substances in an attempt to enhance their performance. Thomas Hicks, an American marathoner in the 1904 Olympics, had to be revived after he drank Brandy lased with cocaine and strychnine. He won the gold medal, although I believe the Brandy/Cocaine/Strychnine cocktail never really took off in popularity among his fellow athletes. His fellow runners, the sprinters attempted to use nitroglycerine a couple of decades later, to dilate (expand) their coronary arteries; they later switched to experimenting with Benzidrine, an amphetamine.

Many of such compounds had been used, but none are as powerful or provided such rapid increases in strength and powerful as anabolic steroids. For this reason, after its invention by Dr.Ziegler, Dianabol was quickly made available to anyone looking for an extra edge. It helped many bodybuilders, weightlifters, football players, and Olympic athletes train harder, longer, and more efficiently. As all steroids can do, it enhanced protein synthesis and allowed new muscle to be built at a rate that was much more rapid than would otherwise be possible. And that increased muscle power and strength translated into financial rewards for the athletes who were taking them.

If you were an athlete looking to take your career farther, Dianabol was going to be an indespensible part of your dietary intake. At this point, the "steroid arms-race" was in full swing. Athletes all over the world wanted to know where to get them and how to use them, and countries were scrambling to develop new steroids and protocols for using them. Then, oddly, in 1968 there was an official complaint about steroids made by the World Health Organization. This complaint wasn´t made by sports authorities, but by the World Health Organization. Steroids were being over produced by the major pharmaceutical firms, and were subsequently shipped to certain third world countries, where doctors would receive a kickback for prescribing large amounts of them. Kenya and Jamaica were the main countries where this was happening, and they (predictably) did very well for themselves at the Olympics that year.

At this time in the United States, professional sports were gaining prominence and athletes began to be able to support themselves by just playing their sport. Notably, at this time, there were no documented reports of athletes using steroids in sports other than Olympic competition. Nonetheless, at this time, a ban on Anabolic steroids was issued by the International Olympic Council, and in the coming decades, most professional sports organizations would follow suit. The original ban on anabolic steroids was enacted for ethical and moral concerns, not safety (as is often thought). Shortly after the first ban on performance enhancers came the first athlete caught breaking that ban. In the 1972, an American swimmer named Rick De Mont was found to be using a newly banned substance- ephedrine. At that time, ephedrine was an approved medication for asthma, and you guessed it- Mr. De Mont was an asthmatic with a prescription for it. Two years prior to that first the 1972 Olympics, Arnold Schwarzenegger won his first of seven Mr. Olympia titles, reportedly with the aid of Dr. Zeigler´s little blue Dianabol pills.

Steroid use in the Olympics went on, for the next couple of decades, in a game of Cat and Mouse between the athletes and the International Olympic Committee. For the most part, the athletes were very successful in avoiding positive drug tests. The East Germans developed several novel compounds to avoid detection, and were only caught when word leaked somehow. For the most part, the Russians and Americans were also very successful at this. Professional bodybuilding also marched onwards with competitors taking ever-increasing amounts of steroids and other drugs, without fear of testing positive.

By the 1990´s, Anabolic Steroids had been absorbed into society, and their use had penetrated every possible sport from the professional ranks down to the High-School level. There were the occasional scandals here and there, but nothing really captured the general public´s attention for very long. In 1987 the National Football League introduced it´s anti-steroid policy, and Major League Baseball was left as the most major sports organization in the world which still had no such policy.

Steroids in High School Sports

Steroids in high-school have become an increasingly hot topic in both the media as well as at various levels of the government. This particular topic, of course is going to be at the forefront of many high-school athletes as well as their parents, coaches, and teachers. At this juncture, I think it´s important that I be crystal clear about my position on steroid use by high-school students/athletes and minors under the age of 18 in general. I do not endorse nor condone the use of any illegal substance by minors. However, I also feel it to be absurd to carry on allowing the campaign of misinformation on anabolic steroid use to be allowed to continue. I´ve personally been out of high-school for exactly a decade, and before I began writing about performance-enhancement full time, I worked with at-risk youths in a high-school. I believe this gives me a unique perspective to provide information from, as well as a certain degree of sensitivity to the current climate regarding this issue.

The first thing that I´m going to tell you is that "scare tactics" don´t work. Telling a high-school kid that steroids will kill you is silly; especially when he can turn on the television and look at ESPN and see Bill Romanowski setting NFL records, or Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi breaking home-run records. Scare-tactics and misinformation have failed miserably to stem the tide of anabolic steroid use by high-school students. My position therefore is that education and truth are the best ways to deal with the issue of steroids in high school sports.

First, let´s see where misinformation has gotten us, with regards to stopping high school students from taking steroids. Steroid "education" in schools started becoming widespread in the mid 1980. A quick look at the literature from this time shows that the position taken by the educational community was that steroids do not enhance athletic performance, and they carry with them the great probability of permanent health damage. I´m not really sure where to begin my comments on those particular positions, and still keep this article G-rated.

So let´s review the facts.

In 1988, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined Anabolic Steroid use patterns among the male adolescents. In this particular study, overall participation rate on a school-wide basis was 68.7% and on an individual basis was approximately half (just over 50%). The participants in this survey were 12th-grade male students in 46 high schools across the nation who completed a questionnaire which asked them several questions concerning their current or previous use of Anabolic Steroids. The results indicated that 6.6% of 12th grade male students use or have used AS and that over two thirds of the users were 16 years of age or younger when they did their first cycle (5).

The results of a 1990 survey of 2113 high school students show that Ninety-four (4.4%) of 2113 students admitted using anabolic steroids. When that is categorized further by gender, we find that 67 (6.5%) of 1028 males and 27 (2.5%) of 1085 females were users of steroids. Predictably, athletes had a statistically significant greater use of steroids (79 [5.5%] of 1436 subjects) than did non-athletes (15 [2.4%] of 636 subjects) (6). Still, the survey shows a total of roughly 4% of the surveyed high school population had used steroids.

Now, let´s fast forward a couple of years to examine a survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. According to that survey, steroid use among high school students more than doubled between 1991 and 2003. Slightly over 6% of 15,000 students surveyed admitted trying steroid pills or injections. Huh? Wait and in 1988, 6% of the students in the survey had done steroids. Yet, in 2003 the number was still the same, though it had "doubled since 1991" according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. At this time, it should be noted that fewer than 4% of the nation´s high schools were testing for steroids, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations´ survey of athletic directors.

Are you confused yet? It seems that the rates of steroid use is holding relatively steady at between 4 and 6%, yet we´re being told that it´s an epidemic. So what´s the real story about steroids in high school?

In 2005, if we look at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, 6.1% of students from grades 9 through 12 had taken anabolic steroids (7). Once again, we´re seeing about 6% or so of high school students are using anabolic steroids. Sorry, but that´s still basically the same rate as the previous two decades. Is this a "mounting problem" as many in the media would have us believe? Hardly. In fact, it´s holding steady.

So where is the media getting their information? Well, probably not from scientific journals or reliable sources for statistics. In fact, anecdotal evidence is frequently used in news reports, and that type of evidence typically greatly over estimates the widespread usage of anabolic steroids among athletes and often claims reach as high as 20-90%. On the other hand, scientific studies show a trend towards indicating that usage is actually rare and generally no higher than 6% (8). And, to look further into the hard scientific research instead of the soft anecdotal evidence, there is strong indications that suggest that anabolic steroid usage actually declines progressively from high school to college and beyond(8).

Should high school students be using anabolic steroids? No, definitely not. Is this the problem the media would have us believe it is? Again: no, definitely not. In fact, some estimates for 2004 even suggest that only 3.4% of 12th graders have used steroids (9). Let´s put that number in perspective, shall we? According to that xsame source, 76.8% of 12th graders have drank alcohol in their, and the rates of use for most other drugs by high school students (Marijuana, Cocaine, Ecstasy, etc...) are significantly higher than they are for steroid use. I don´t know if that eases the minds of most parents, but I think it ought to give some kind of perspective on exactly where the "steroid epidemic" ranks in importance.

Still for most parents, most memorable moment in the Congressional hearings on steroids was the testimony when the committee´s chairman, Rep. Tom Davis (R., Va.)claimed that there were in attendance "the parents of kids who have used steroids and committed suicide." Later, The New York Times published a story on a student who killed himself, Efrain Marrero, whose family said that his stopping anabolic steroid use provides a viable explanation for his suicide. The New York Times calls this "persuasive anecdotal evidence." Dr. Jack Darkes, who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology as well as the Director of Interventions, Alcohol and Substance Use Research Institute at the University of South Florida disagrees with the notion that steroids can be blamed for such instances, and instead cautions us to try to ascribe the tragic ending of a young life to just one factor. I would like to echo his sentiments and say that to attempt to overstate the issue of steroids in high school to only one factor, or overstate it´s importance is equally dangerous. Education at the high school level needs to be based in science and reason, and not simply be reactionary and emotional displays set into motion by the current media frenzy of attention to the issue. The first step is to educate the parents, coaches, and teachers with solid medically based and unbiased information, then to present it to adolescents through the high school education system they are enrolled in. Put simply, you wouldn´t let your children learn table manners from television, so why let them learn about steroids and other drugs from there?

Recent research strongly indicates that a prominent media outlet (a major magazine or television show, for example) can build an agenda for the entire media and thereby influence policy changes as far reaching as the national level of government (10). So if the general feeling we get from the media is that steroids are a rising problem and that steroid abuse is becoming more common in high schools yet the hard scientific date suggests otherwis and who are we to trust? I think the answer is clear& personally, I would put my faith in science and scientific studies before the media. Unfortunately, it would appear that the former is not strongly influencing government policy, while the latter is (10). And that all started with steroids in baseball.

Steroids in Baseball

(Sports Illustrated, June 2002, as told by Ken Caminiti)

Major league baseball was the last major sports organization in the United States to implement a comprehensive drug testing policy. This all started with a bottle of a nutritional supplement seen in Mark McGwire´s locker. The bottle contained Androstendione, a prohormone, or a compound which can convert into another one inside the body. In this particular case, the compound in question converts to Testosterone once in the body. Unfortunately, at this time, McGwire was en route to breaking a home-run record that had been standing for decades. MGwire retired shortly after breaking that record, but the story of steroids in baseball and the Major League Baseball (MLB) organization went ahead at full speed. Just a few short years later, Ken Caminiti revealed to Sports Illustrated that he used anabolic steroids, and that he estimated roughly fifty percent of the players in the league were using them also. This admission opened the floodgates to the media to begin their full scale assault on MLB. Jose Canseco, in a book published during the height of the steroids in baseball media coverage, estimated that 85% of all players in MLB used steroids, and also admitted using them. Remember the difference between what has been found in scientific studies vs. anecdotal statistics? This is a prime example of one such difference. The players can´t even agree on a percentage, and they´re in the locker-rooms!

Although Caminiti´s story was the earliest major media admission of steroid use by a recently retired former MVP in baseball´s professional ranks, it was one of the most influential. The following is a chart illustrating media attention to steroids in baseball for the weeks preceding and following the Sports Illustrated piece on Caminiti. Week fourteen is when the piece was published. You can see that prior to that, only ten pieces were published in the mainstream media. In the same time (weeks-wise), you can see that hundreds of articles were put out after Caminiti admission:

The most famous story in the steroids in sports is that of Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds. Both of those players were suspected of using anabolic steroids when the BALCO scandal was exposed. Giambi, for his part, told a U.S. grand jury that he used a duo of undetectable steroids known respectively as "the cream" and "the clear," both of which he received from personal trainer Greg Anderson during the 2003 season. Bonds, on the other hand claimed that his trainer told him the substances were the nutritional supplement flaxseed oil and a pain-relieving balm for his arthritis.

There were also claims that a transcript of Bonds´ entire testimony was leaked to the press, and that according to a transcript of Bonds´ Dec. 4, 2003, testimony, he admitted the following were used by him: "the cream," "the clear," human growth hormone, Depo-Testosterone, insulin and a drug for female infertility that can be used to mask steroid use."

Bonds´ attorney, Michael Rains, said the leak of the testimony was simply engineered to discredit Mr. Bonds. However, it´s important to remember that at the time they were not banned by MLB.

So did all this media attention hurt baseball? The answer is a resounding "no". Baseball sales figures and attendance were in a slump before McGwire was en route to his home-run record, and they´ve been climbing ever since. But are all the additional home runs a result of steroid use? Well, it´s easy to say we need to put asterisks on every record set during the "steroid era" of baseball, but that would give too much credit to steroids alone. Of course training methods and nutrition are part of the puzzle, but the other piece is probably not as obvious. In the mid-´90s starting in the American League and in the late ´90s starting in the National League, home runs began to become more and more common.

Although steroids are often blamed, the construction of more "homer-friendly" ballparks also has something to do with it, no doubt. Coors Field, a recent addition to the MLB stable of fields has become the most prolific run-scoring park in the history of MLB. Enron Field was also built (reincarnated into the more media friendly "Minute Maid Park"), actually has a home-run friendly left field line that was (and still may be) a clear violation of major league rules. The Milwaukee Brewers, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers have all also built very homerun-friendly fields in recent years, as have the Arizona Diamondbacks. For their part, the Cardinals, Orioles, and White Sox have pulled in the distance from home-plate to their outfield fence. Need I also add that the strike zone has become much more beneficial to hitters since the era of Roger Maris? Still, the questions remain, about steroids in major league baseball. Do major league baseball players use steroids? Of course they do. Can we say that steroids are the reason for the inflated home-run statistics of recent years? Of course not.

With Multi-Million dollar contracts on the line every season, the only fact that we can be sure of is that steroids are being used in baseball, and they will continue to be used for as long as players can get away with it. Congress recently chimed in and pressured MLB into instituting a comprehensive testing policy for their athletes, but steroid use in baseball is unlikely to decline considerably as a result of it.

Steroids in Football

Steroid policy in football and the NFL as we know it began in 1987. But to understand the use of steroids in football, first we need to take a look at the emerging trends in the high school and collegiate ranks. So what´s going on in high school? Well, if we look at an examination of the heights and weights of members of the annual Parade Magazine´s High School All-American Football Teams from 1963-1971, we see no significant changes in the Body Mass Index of these elite high-school athletes. Now, if we take another look and examine those same players´ heights and weights but this time we compare 1972-1989, we see a clear trend towards an increased pattern in Body Mass Index (11). These are interesting results, to say the least. If we take a look at an elite collegiate program such as Michigan State University, we see this trend again. In 1975, their average player weighed 213lbs, and by 2005 that weight had jumped to 236lbs (12).

With regards to football, it would seem that current educational efforts are not working well, either. At the high school level education about steroids was studied on six different. Two football teams received a lecture on steroids and a four-page handout, two of them were given just the handout, and two teams were controls (and didn´t receive any education on steroids). Also, at this level of football, the incidence of self-report of current steroid use was 1.1%. After the education was given to the athletes, focusing of the adverse effects possible with anabolic steroid use, no differences in their attitudes toward the use of anabolic steroids occurred as compared to controls, at all (13). So that´s the starting point we have to look at anabolic use in professional football. Education, in its current form isn´t changing the attitudes of high-school players, and at the elite level of high-school and college, the players are getting significantly bigger. So what does the landscape of professional football look like? In a story that is very similar to its roots in high school and collegiate football, NFL linemen are weighing well over 300lbs on average today. Roughly 25 years ago, they weighed over fifty pounds less, on average (13).

The most famous story of steroid use in the NFL is that of Lyle Alzado. Seven years after having a successful career in the NFL, in 1992, Alzado died from brain lymphoma, a very rare form of brain cancer. He was 43 that year, but in the years preceding it, Alzado became an often used symbol of the dangers of steroid abuse. There is absolutely no medical link between steroids and brain lymphoma, and there is absolutely no reason for Alzado to believe his condition was related to steroid use.

The story of Bill Romanowski is probably the next most influential one concerning steroids in football. Although Bill Romanowski wasn´t indicted in the BALCO scandal, he later wrote a book, in which he admits that Victor Conte introduced him to several performance enhancing compounds, notably anabolic steroids (15).

Although he was a very good linebacker before he used steroids, people often attribute his tackling ability to them. He is probably most famous for his non-playing related antics, however. He spit in J.J. Stokes´ face, broke somebody´s finger at the bottom of a pile up, kicked a downed player in the head several times in one incident, broke a quarterback´s jaw with an illegal helmet to helmet hit, fought former boxer Charles Haley in training camp, often speared wide receivers illegally, broke another players´ ocular cavity, and was always involved in various shoving matches and on field altercations. Unfortunately, this has been attributed, post-facto, to his use of anabolic steroids.

Of course, football players use steroids, and of course this occurs at the high-school, collegiate, and professional levels. It´s a fact of the game that a very skilled but small player will usually get beaten by a very skilled but considerably larger player.

And once again, as long as there is prestige and money to be earned from playing football, there will be steroids in it.

Steroids in the Olympics

Anabolic steroid use in athletics, in all probability, began with the 1952 Olympics, as noted earlier in this article. Although not chronologically correct, I´m going to also finish this piece with the most famous case of sports doping in the world. Of course, I´m talking about the man who was considered the fastest man in the world: Ben Johnson. After breaking the world sprinting record in the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, he tested positive for Winstrol (Stanozolol). For anyone who has never heard his coach tell the story, Charlie Francis has provided ample evidence for the test being somewhat unreliable (3). Briefly states, the accepted drug clearance time for Winstrol at that time was +/- three days for the oral form and +/- 14 days for the injectable. Ben had used the compound 28 days prior to the race, and the parent compound was still found. This is especially odd, since the parent compound only lasts for 45 minutes after administration. The testers, therefore, must be making the claim that Ben ingested it just prior to the actual race. Both he and his coach, Mr. Francis, denied this. In fact, it was later discovered that someone as lean as Johnson may have even been clear in less than 3 days! Some oral steroids at that time (Anavar, or Oxandrolone) couldn´t even be found on tests at that time.

So the test remains very suspect, although Ben Johnson was suspended and stripped of his Olympic Gold medal. He probably suffered the worst fate of all the people who have been caught using steroids either at the Olympics or otherwise.

So where does that leave us? Well certainly, the world of sports has embraced the use of steroids, or at least the athletes have... the use of steroids in sports is certainly visible but not as widespread as thought. It is not the problem that it is often made out to be, and it is not a problem that is easily defined or to put a number on. Statistically, it is a very elusive topic, and sources often present conflicting data. But one thing remains true, regardless of statistics, Congressional hearings, or admissions of guilt. Although some athletes still compete for the love of the game, prestige often accompanies success. And today, just as two millennia ago, athletes often find the opportunity to compete for both prestige as well as money. And that is why they sought out performance enhancers in the ancient Olympic Games, and that´s why athletes are using steroids in sports today.

Steroids In Sports References:

  1. Wm. Blake Tyrrell, "The Smell of Sweat: Greek Athletics, Olympics, and Culture," Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Wauconda. 2004.
  2. "Hormonal Doping and Androgenization of Athletes: " Franke et. al
  3. "A Brief History of Drugs in Sport" by Charlie Francis
  4. "Speed Trap" by Charlie Francis
  5. JAMA 1988 Dec 16;260(23):3441-5.
  6. Am J Dis Child. 1990 Jan;144(1):99-103.
  7. J Sch Nurs. 2005 Dec;21(6):333-9.
  8. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Nov;18(4):908-17.
  9. Monitoring the Future [MTF], n.d
  10. Journalism. 5(1). 51-68, 2004.
  11. Percept Mot Skills. 1993 Apr;76(2):379-83.
  12. (Michigan State University Dept. of Athletics)
  13. J Adolesc Health Care. 1990 May;11(3):210-4.
  14. (National Football League Statistics)
  15. "Romo My Life on the Edge: Living Dreams and Slaying Dragons."by Bill Romanowski et al. William Morrow Publishing co. 2005.

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