Steroid use (or juice in common conversation) is an American dilemma. America doesn’t like losers. Little, skinny, weak can be mocked. Bigger, stronger, most beautiful, fastest, the best looking, best statistics and records, seem to be our goals. In sports and in business, in politics and diplomacy, it’s often “win at all costs.” Steroids have been a key factor in some of our wins. Steroids have become so common that newscasters, advertisers, politicians, and many of us have used expressions like: a car, an iPad, a business deal, even a theory or policy “on steroids!”
What are steroids, how common is their use, and how should we respond? First of all their chemical composition.
According to Wikipedia (which for basic scientific matters can usually be trusted):
A steroid is a type of organic compound that contains a characteristic arrangement of four cycloalkane rings joined to one another. Examples of steroids include the dietary lipid cholesterol, the sex hormones estradiol and testosterone, bile acids, and drugs such as the anti-inflammatory agent dexamethasone.
… are drugs that are structurally related to the cyclic steroid ring system and have similar effects to testosterone in the body. They increase protein within cells, especially in skeletal muscles. Anabolic steroids also have androgenic and virilizing properties, including the development of masculine characteristics such as the growth of the vocal chords, testicles (primary sexual characteristics) and body hair (secondary sexual characteristics).
Ergogenic uses for anabolic steroids as performance-enhancing drugs in sports, racing, and body-building are controversial because of their adverse effects. And the potential for gaining unfair advantage is, for many, considered cheating.
Historically, some athletes have sought chemical advantage. In the 1860s a group of Dutch swimmers were suspected of taking drugs to speed up their times. Baseball pitcher “Pud” Galvin used an injectable steroid-based product back in 1889. By the 1940s, the male hormone testosterone was synthesized and was being more frequently used in competitive sports. Controversies about such physical enhancement abounded through the 1950s and 1970s. Obviously, many athletes felt they needed drugs such as steroids to remain competitive. The International Olympic Committee banned steroid use in 1975. Its use among elite athletes continued in the 1980s and beyond.
Investigation by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO), revealing confessions by some athletes, and the Mitchell investigation into professional baseball doping have brought the whole issue of doping to public attention.
Besides different types of anabolic steroids, stimulants such as amphetamines, human growth hormones and supplements (such as androstenedione—known as “andro”) provide a wide variety of ways athletes can gain an edge—often escaping detection. Blood doping is another illicit means of improving athletic performance; the injection of extra red blood cells increases the amount of oxygen available to strained muscles. There are four main ways to increase one’s red-cell count—two legal and two illegal. Putting oneself into a high altitude pressure tank overnight or for a few hours, is one of the ways still legal.
News articles noted steroid use among youth from the 1980s. Here are just a few headlines from over the past decades:
“Children’s steroid use rising, study says,” Associated Press, 5May98
“Steroids and Kids: How Sports Doping Hits Home,” Newsweek cover story, 20Dec04
“Are steroids as bad as we think they are? The Boston Globe, 12December04
“Reading, writing and ‘ROIDS,” The Boston Herald, 24June05
“Congress and Baseball Battle over Steroids,” The New York Times, 10March05
“Steroid use by young women troubling: Specialists believe problem even greater than statistics, The Boston Globe, 10May05
Without getting into all the dangers of youthful steroid use, one problem is the imbalance of suddenly increased muscle strength while bones are still developing. Michael Meyers (exercise physiology, Univ. of Houston) says, “You get a tremendous increase in muscle mass, but the connective tissue does not catch up. The tendons and ligaments are not strong enough…” causing ligament tears and fractures especially around the knees (http://whyfiles.org/090doping_sport/4.html, accessed 27June14).
The documentary, “Bigger, Stronger, Faster,” (Christopher Bell, 2008) puts a family face on steroids. Two of the Bells’ three sons excel with steroid use. The third, Chris, examines steroid culture in this documentary, considering its dangers without taking a clear stand against steroid use. Instead, it questions our culture’s win-at-all-costs expectancies, and frequent social hypocrisies. With opinions from all sides of the controversy, this documentary (available on YouTube, accessed 28June14) is a provocative discussion starter.
Despite media warnings about the risks of anabolic steroids—which include fertility problems, potentially irreversible masculine traits in females and breast enlargement in males, toxic effects on the liver and cardiovascular system, arrested growth, and damaging psychiatric side effects—kids keep taking them. According to surveys, 6.1% of students nationwide had taken oral or injected steroids without a doctor’s prescription at least once. The motivation to use steroids often comes from peer pressure, and in some cases, from parental (and coaches) demands to achieve greater goals. In addition, some teenagers simply want to look better.
Studies on rats have shown increased aggression from steroid injection. Experts acknowledge that steroids can, along with other factors, bring on episodes of human aggression. In June, 2007, WWE wrestler Chris Benoit strangled his wife and young son to death before hanging himself. Alcohol, anabolic steroids and other drugs were found in his body, but the full cause of this family tragedy is unresolved (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/news/story?id=2939837, accessed 27June14). Aggression has been reported enough to have created the term “roid rage.” It’s estimated that such aggressive rage takes place in some 5% of users—and many would say, “mis-users.”
There is no clear consensus as to the overall dangers of steroid use. Body builders admit its negative affects on the body—most of which are reversible in men—but say the muscular benefits outweigh such aggravations.
Scientists are working on genetic muscle enhancement (which could help those unable to exercise with withering muscles). Hormone expert Ronald Evans demonstrated such genetic modification in mice (2005). The double-muscled Belgian blue cow demonstrated a 20% increase of muscle through gene manipulation. Human genetic engineering might thus bypass the need for doping. This raises serious ethical, as well as medical, issues.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
What has been your experience with steroids? Do you know others who have used them?
Are you concerned about America’s (and the world’s) fascination with extreme bodies… and its obsession with winning?
What dangers do you see in using anabolic steroids?
How do you feel about the rampant use of steroids and enhancers in most sports—and its effects upon records?
Do you have an opinion as to how the government should regulate steroids and human growth enhancement?
Does this article suggest to you the need for serious medical and ethical discussion?
The immediate reaction of many of us to potential youthful dangers is to suggest laws and enforcements against such practices. This is a weakness of linear and individualistic thinking and logic. As poverty is a key cause behind human trafficking, so there are cultural (family, athletic, media, peer, and other) influences pushing young people (and adults) to improve their appearance or performance through the use of steroids (and other enhancers).
Young people need to discuss the benefits and dangers of steroid use. Such discussion is more likely to help them than are our warnings or rules. Parents, coaches, teachers, youth leaders, and all adult mentors, share this responsibility—especially to those we consider most vulnerable.
Our challenge, our emphasis, should be on systemic reform and on individual character building. We must compete with sources instilling negative values and poor self-identities (including body image) into a critical, emerging generation.