Health

Popping the muscle pill

Banned in Canada, a drug helps athletes build strength

JAMES DEACON September 7 1998
Health

Popping the muscle pill

Banned in Canada, a drug helps athletes build strength

JAMES DEACON September 7 1998

Popping the muscle pill

Banned in Canada, a drug helps athletes build strength

Mark McGwire has done wonders for baseball this year. Since April, his chase of Roger Maris’s single-season home-run record of 61 has helped restore the focus of media and fans to on-field heroics rather than off-field bickering between owners and players. McGwire’s enormous popularity extends beyond St. Louis, where he plays, to ballparks around the Major Leagues. Even the notoriously abusive fans at New York’s Shea Stadium recently gave the Bunyanesque slugger a standing ovation when he swatted a pair of homers against the Mets. Unwittingly, however, McGwire has helped spur ^ widespread interest in a more dubious product. The § Cardinals’ first baseman has admitted taking the musË; cle-building supplement androstenedione this season t to build and then maintain strength over the grind of I the 162-game schedule. And in the same way that Ben McGwire: Johnson’s positive test at the 1988 Summer Olympics led to more widespread use of steroids, McGwire’s revelation has made “andró” the new performance-enhancing drug of choice.

Never mind what’s right or wrong. High-performance athletes and bodybuilders are turning to androstenedione because it boosts testosterone levels, making users stronger and better able to recover quickly from heavy workouts. It is comparatively affordable— $85 for a bottle of 84 tablets that lasts up to one month—and though illegal to sell in Canada, it is available at U.S. vitamin stores, over the Internet or through a thriving black market. “In the gym,” said the manager of a Montreal bodybuilding store, who requested anonymity, “you can get it no problem if you talk to the right person.” Teammates and other athletes supported McGwire’s use of andró, citing the fact that, although banned by the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee, it is permitted in baseball and is openly used by many others in the game. “If it’s legal and you’re in a sport that demands size, speed and strength, you have to take it,” says Prince Green, a strength and conditioning trainer at a Toronto gym. ‘Your income depends on it.”

The muscular McGwire, who stands six feet, five inches and weighs 245 pounds, is wonderful advertising. He has suffered through injury-plagued seasons in the past, yet he has been able to stay fit this year and is closing in on one of North American sports’ most revered records. Moreover, he has captured fans’ imagination not only with the number of his home runs, but also with the majesty of the clouts. He routinely launches balls that land more than 30 m beyond the outfield fences. And there’s nothing like success to breed imitation, regardless of the sport. Former Toronto Maple Leafs winger Nick Kypreos says that after the andró story broke, he was approached during a morning workout last week by a junior player asking where he could get the drug. “The question was not ‘How is this going to affect me?’ or ‘Is it right to use drugs?’ ” Kypreos says. “The question was ‘Can this give me an edge?’ ”

An adrenal hormone produced naturally in men and women, androstenedione was used by East German athletes in the 1970s but did not become commercially available in North America until the past few years. Manufacturers and retailers strongly deny the assertion in some news stories that the drug is a steroid. “Those reports are damaging to the industry,” says Dean Pipher, sales manager for Mississauga, Ont.-based MuscleTech Research & Development, which manufactures a variety of bodybuilding products, including an andró product for U.S. consumption called Anotesten. “We are offering an alternative to steroids that is somewhat natural.”

But doping-control officials claim that anything that boosts testosterone levels is a steroid and comes with the same possible sideeffects—liver damage, baldness, acne and shrinking testicles, among other things. More immediately damaging to McGwire, perhaps, is the ethical issue. Critics argue that even if he surpasses Maris’s 1961 total, McGwire’s achievement will be diminished for his having used the drug. But Paul Melia, director of education at the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, blames the sport, and its lax drug policy, for undercutting McGwire’s record chase. “It’s Major League Baseball that needs to get its act together,” he says.

The growth market for androstenedione, however, is in the weight rooms of local gyms, where the issue isn’t who runs the fastest or jumps the highest, but who has the biggest biceps. Glenn Beardsley, assistant director of fitness, recreation and health at Toronto’s downtown YMCA, says people continue to ignore the drug’s illegality and warnings about its side-effects. “Recreational users are willing to overlook those things because they care more about how they look,” he says. Their vanity, however, may someday come with a high price.

Health

JAMES DEACON

BRENDA BRANSWELL