The drug that cost Ben Johnson his Olympic gold medal last September is deceptively innocent in appearance. Within each pink tablet of stanozolol, however, are two milligrams of potent anabolic steroid—a synthetic form of the male sex hormone, testosterone. Taken daily over an average of 10 weeks, the pills can enable an athlete to process protein into muscle fibres at an astonishing rate. Johnson—who, according to his coach, Charlie Francis, began using steroids in 1981—erupted from the starting block at Seoul’s Olympic Stadium on Sept. 24
and propelled himself down 100 m of track at a faster rate than any human had ever been clocked. It was a performance that another Olympian, former U.S. weight-lifting silver medallist Bruce Wilhelm, compared last week to that of a souped-up racing car. Said Wilhelm: “He was like a high-performance car, and you have thrown in a little STP.”
The analogy to the popular fuel additive was apt: steroids are the essence of chemical maleness, of physical power and masculine aggression. They are also enormously popular, not only on the sports track but increasingly in the
world of workout gyms and among weekend fitness buffs. According to a report from Edmonton last week, even male high-school students are using steroids just to look more macho. “Use by elite athletes is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Vancouver sports medicine specialist Dr. Douglas Coleman, a former weight lifter who says that he used steroids twice to improve his athletic performances. But Coleman now opposes steroid use. Indeed, he estimates that in the Vancouver area 5,000 people have used steroids. “They are people primarily concerned with their body image,” he told Maclean’s, “amateur body builders, models, prison guards, firemen, bouncers, policemen, football players.” In the United States, federal officials estimate that blackmarket sales of steroids earn traffickers as much as $100 million a year.
Massive: But experts say that users of steroids are playing chemical roulette with their bodies and their sexual characteristics. Especially for women, the supercharged physiques promoted by massive infusions of male sex hormones come at the price of long-lasting side effects. And many users of both sexes find that the drugs can lead to debilitating psychological dependency. Still, the long-term consequences of steroid use remain uncertain. And some observers say that unfounded statements about steroids have undermined attempts to steer athletes away from the drugs. Far from shunning the performance-enhancing drugs, many athletes may be turning instead to new generations of even more sophisticated—and potentially hazardous—chemicals.
The motive is plain: the drugs work. Indeed, Dr. Charles Yesalis, a steroid researcher and professor of health and human development at Pennsylvania State University, said that “they work exquisitely well.” Steroids’ ability to promote quick muscle formation allows athletes using them to follow more strenuous training schedules than other competitors. The drugs enhance protein synthesis within the muscles and enable enhanced training at higher levels of intensity without the necessity of recovery time. Said Antony Franks, one of two British doctors who described stanozolol’s effects in the October, 1988, issue of The British Medical Journal “The benefit is simply that you can do things with them that you could not do without them.”
Decisive: Last week, Francis told the Dubin inquiry into drug use that the gains in strength and speed can be the equivalent of a one-metre head start in a 100-m race. It was the lure of that advantage that proved decisive, Francis said, in Johnson’s decision in 1981 to begin using steroids supplied at first by an unidentified Toronto doctor and later by Canadian shotput champion Bishop Dolegiewicz and Johnson’s personal physician, Dr. George Mario (Jamie) Astaphan. Wilhelm, who used steroids during the 1970s, added: “They let you train harder. I don’t think that steroids are all that bad if taken in moderation.”
But many unsupervised users take alarmingly large doses of the hormones. They often mix different types of steroids or combine them
with amino acids, growth hormones and other drugs in socalled stacks, or potent chemical cocktails. Dosages often exceed 30 times the natural testosterone levels in males among body builders seeking the maximum effect from the drugs.
Even at lower levels, steroid users expose themselves to unpredictable and longterm side effects. According to Francis, when Canadian sprinter Angella Issajenko began taking five milligrams of the steroid Dianabol daily during several periods in 1980, the effect was to send as much male hormone as most men produce coursing through her compact fivefoot, five-inch frame. The results shot her to the top rank of Canadian sprinters. But Issajenko risked a harrowing list of possible side effects that, in women, include permanent enlargement of the clitoris, shrinking of the breasts, the growth of body hair, male-pattern baldness and irreversible deepening of the voice. “You notice that a lot of women body builders have frizzy hairdos,” said Yesalis. “It is to hide bald spots.”
The effects on the larger number of men who take steroids are less dramatic and may also not be permanent. Some male users show elevated blood pressure, suppressed sperm counts and, often, acute acne. Yesalis said that “if you quit using the drugs, those effects go away.” But, he added, “a lot of people don’t go off the drug.”
Risk: In fact, evidence is mounting that steroids may be powerfully habit-forming.
Yesalis, for one, reports—in the forthcoming issue of the Farmingdale, N.Y.-based Journal of Drug Education— disquieting findings from a survey of 3,400 high-school seniors, of which 220 admitted to using steroids. Fully 38 per cent of the users said that they would continue taking steroids even if they were convinced that their competitors were not using them. As well, about one-quarter of the users said that they would continue to take steroids even if presented with proof that the drugs could cause sterility and greatly increase the risk of liver cancer and heart attack before age 40. “People that used the drug most often,” Yesalis told Maclean’s, “expressed a stronger intent to keep using
them, regardless.” He concluded, “I think you have an argument for habituation.” Vancouver’s Coleman said that when he advises patients to stop using steroids, “it’s like telling somebody to stop smoking or drinking alcohol. They like what it does to them.”
There is more debate about another effect sometimes blamed on steroids: socalled ’roid rage, the violent hair-trigger temper that some observers have associated with elevated levels of male sex hormones. Said Dr. William Taylor, a Pensacola, Fla.-based sports physician and steroid researcher: “Personality changes, criminal activity and violent behavior are all being linked to long-term steroid use.” But Yesalis and Coleman dispute that conclusion. Said Yesalis: “I don’t see evidence to document ’roid rage.”
Still, Yesalis and others acknowledge that reliable information about the long-term
effects of steroids is scarce. “We don’t know, period,” Yesalis told Maclean’s. In fact, Yesalis expressed frustration in his attempts to secure funding for a proposed detailed study of the health condition of 400 heavy steroid users and 300 nonusers during the 1970s. Until better
scientific information is available, he said, skeptics are right to doubt claims that steroids can cause kidney damage as well as cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. “We are not seeing the body bags,” noted Yesalis, who added, “I think some of my colleagues—with the best of intentions—have overstated the risks to encourage people not to use steroids.” Some critics have expressed concern that many steroid users may now disregard physicians’ warnings about potential health consequences. Declared California’s Wilhelm, for one: “I look at it with a jaundiced eye when they start talking about side effects.” Suspected: Steroids have a long history. Originally developed in the late 1930s and early 1940s by European and North American biochemists, they have a limited but wellestablished use in treating growth problems in children and the wasting effects of cancer. By 1960, however, they were already suspected of playing a role in some performances at that year’s Rome Olympics. And, by the 1980s, at least half of the athletes in some Olympic events were suspected of using steroids in training.
Despite a superpower understanding reached last November in Moscow, allowing American and Soviet officials to perform surprise drug tests on each other’s athletes, there seems little likelihood of steroids being removed from sports. Athletes equipped with the same sophisticated grasp of biochemistry that Francis exhibited during his testimony in Toronto last week are quick to exploit the discovery of each new masking agent. New performance-enhancing compounds, notably human growth hormones, do not leave the telltale traces of metabolites that set off alarms in doping control stations.
Meanwhile, there is little beyond concern for their own health to dissuade the growing number of people who use synthetic hormones in search of a perfect body. Said Coleman last week: “Steroid use is a reflection of our society. I wonder, if there was a drug that made you smarter but might cause liver damage, what would happen to people obsessed with research and Nobel Peace Prizes?” Like much else that has emerged during the Dubin inquiry, that speculation raised troubling issues for Canadians both on and off the sports field.
CHRIS WOOD with HAL QUINN in Vancouver, ANDREW PHILLIPS in London and DIANNE RINEHART in Moscow
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