SMOKE: A CLOSER LOOK AT STEROIDS IN PROFESSIONAL SPORTS
When the words “anabolic steroids” are mentioned, they conjure a variety of negative images including dying teenagers and “cheaters” like Barry Bonds. In stark contrast, the words “breast implants” illicit a much more positive response, even though they pose a variety of serious, documented health risks for their recipient.
Why is it that our society views a professional actress with breast implants so differently than a professional athlete on steroids? Given that both the athlete and the actress are ultimately working towards the same goal—to maximize the length and success of their entertainment careers—it appears that an ethical “double standard” exists.
Many incidents, including Ben Johnson’s use of steroids and the death of one the NFL’s toughest men (confessed steroid user Lyle Alzedo) began to mobilize public sentiment against steroid use in the late 80’s and early 90’s. But it was not until the highly-publicized suicide of Taylor Hooten, a Texas high school athlete, whose 2003 suicide was blamed on steroids, that the anti-steroid campaign went “national.”
In reviewing the facts of Hooten’s case, medical experts concluded that his death was most likely caused by the side effects of a strong, anti-depressant drug—not by steroids. The anti-steroid campaign led by his father, however, was still very successful in its attempts to create widespread parental panic and unfounded public fear.
Despite volumes of research suggesting that anabolic steroids are not only safe, but very beneficial in improving an adult male’s overall health and well-being, they remain illegal.
What exactly is a steroid? It’s a naturally-occurring molecule made from cholesterol in the human body (Dr. Cohen). It can be either anabolic or catabolic. An anabolic steroid, such as testosterone, builds muscle and speeds recovery. A catabolic steroid, like cortisol, helps reduce inflammation.
There are many natural, steroid-like molecules found in the human body and in nature. Although it is called a vitamin, vitamin D3 is actually a secosteroid which means that it has anabolic steroid effects. This naturally-occurring molecule is produced in the skin when stimulated by sun’s rays; it contributes to muscular strength and recovery while improving physical reaction time, balance and coordination (Dr. Cohen). Branch chain amino acids (BCAA’s) are building blocks of proteins that have anabolic, steroid-like effects. While BCAA’s are not created by the body, they are frequently used by athletes and found in foods, especially dark meats, and in a variety of nutritional supplements. Like anabolic steroids, BCAA’s have strong positive effects on muscle growth and recovery.
In addition to naturally-occurring steroids, synthetic forms have been fabricated. A synthetic steroid is a substance with molecules that have been altered to create a stronger and longer-lasting anabolic effect. Studies show that synthetic steroids are completely non-toxic. Contrary to popular opinion, it appears that they do not pose any type of health threat. In fact, of the many thousands of people who have used natural or synthetic steroids, not a single study can conclusively prove that they are harmful (Sports News).
John Ramano, the senior editor of Muscular Development Magazine and a 25-year user of anabolic steroids was once quoted as saying, “Where are the bodies? Show me the bodies!” Despite his regular, long-term use of steroids, Ramano has not suffered a single health problem. In addition of the hundreds of other long-term steroid users he personally knows, none have experienced any harmful side effects (Sports News).
70-year old Bob Clap has been using anabolic steroids for more than 40 years and he has never experienced any negative side effects. And out of the 2,500 people he has known to use steroids, none of them have suffered any serious health problems, either.
In addition to this strong, anecdotal evidence, there is a large body of published, medical research suggesting that anabolic steroids can be very beneficial for adult men, particularly those who have low testosterone levels due to aging and lifestyle issues (large amounts of physical stress and frequent traveling, for example). This is true only if steroids are used—not abused—and are taken under medical supervision. Anabolic steroids are generally not safe for women or adolescents. But should they be illegal?
The initial, public controversy surrounding steroids use began at the 1988 Olympics, when Ben Johnson beat Carl Lewis and broke the World Record in the 100 meter dash. Johnson not only lost his gold medal, but had his 9.79 second 100m record invalidated because he was supposedly using synthetic steroids to boost his performance. At this time, steroid use was not illegal. It was, however, still considered cheating.
In 1992, one of professional football’s toughest men, Lyle Alzedo, reportedly died of brain cancer caused by steroid use. Alzedo’s personal doctor, however, spoke on the record to Sports News saying, “There is no known association between Alzedo’s death and his use of steroids.” During a personal interview with sports reporter, Armand Katan, Dr. Gary Wadler—who is known for his outspoken opposition to anabolic steroid use—admitted that there was, “no way of knowing if steroids could cause illness or death,” even when an autopsy is performed. In short, it appears that there is no solid evidence linking the use of anabolic steroids to Alzedo’s cancer or any other disease.
During the late 80’s, the United States Anti Doping Agency became actively involved in demonizing steroids. Because the agency was finding many Olympic athletes testing positive for steroid use, they wanted them banned. And they pushed Congress to do something about it. In 1990, the Anabolic Steroid Control Act was passed. This meant that anyone using steroids for non-medical purposes could be faced with arrest and prosecution. This law was passed despite the fact that the American Medical Association, The Department of Health and Human Services, and The Drug Enforcement Agency all opposed it (Real Sports News).
Now that steroids are illegal, why haven’t all other performance-enhancing measures been banned? Tiger Woods has surgically-enhanced his vision to 20/15, receives regular cortisone shots to reduce and prevent joint inflammation and takes anti-anxiety drugs to ensure his optimal performance. Long distance runners and competitive cyclists can increase their VO2 uptake by sleeping in high-altitude tents, which clearly give them a competitive advantage. And baseball pitchers can surgically alter the tendons in their arm to make it more durable.
I believe that a case can (and probably should) be made to support the legal use of steroids in professional sports. Professional athletes—from football and basketball heroes to ice hockey and baseball stars—are often forced to retire in their early to mid 30’s. This is an incredibly young age for an entertainer. Would an aging actor or actress be forever branded a “cheater” for having an appearance enhancing nose job or face lift? When compared to the world of professional sports, are these surgical procedures creating any less of an “unfair advantage” in the competitive quest to “win” a movie role or secure a lucrative T.V. contract?
Perhaps the most significant case for legalizing steroids can be made not by addressing misconceptions and de-bunking myths, but by looking at facts. In examining the statistics, it appears that the controlled use of anabolic steroids is, without a doubt, safe. Last year, there were 750,000 documented Americans deaths caused by over-the-counter prescription medications (NaturalNews.com). To date, there have been no confirmed deaths linked to the use of anabolic steroids. Nor is there is any concrete, medical evidence proving that the appropriate use of steroids is physiologically or psychologically damaging. There are, however, hundreds (if not thousands) of published medical studies which conclude that anabolic steroids can be a very powerful, health enhancing tool.
From a purely logical standpoint, declaring the use of steroids illegal because they create an unfair advantage is questionable at best. Athletes who have the financial means are capable of perusing countless other performance-enhancing measures that are equally “unfair.” Actors and Actresses who, like professional athletes, are paid to entertain drastically alter their bodies in an effort to maximize their physical appearance and income. Why, then, should the aging professional athlete be denied an opportunity to extend his career with the use of steroids?
While taking anabolic steroids is a choice I may never make, I believe that politics and fear have simply overcome common sense. The time has come to examine the issue of anabolic steroid use more closely—and to realize that, despite the all smoke, there really is no fire.