'Roid rage

Steroid abuse can cause everything from sexual voracity to violence; some people take them only for cosmetic reasons.


Andrew Taber
November 18, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

In April 1989, nine months after Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, Korea, an elite U.S. track-and-field athlete named Diane Williams presented herself before a Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington. Johnson's steroid bust had created a media maelstrom, and it was now tearing the roof off a secret athletic society of drug users.

At her Senate hearing, Williams told what would become a ubiquitous tale of steroid abuse among female track athletes at both the amateur and Olympic levels. The influx of the male sex hormone testosterone in Williams' system had masculinized her features. At the peak of her drug abuse, Williams no longer menstruated. She sprouted facial hair and her clitoris grew to "embarrassing proportions."

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Ghastly testimony followed from other athletes and coaches, insinuating that steroid use was rampant among athletes of all levels, male and female. After the hearings, a bill drafted by Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., classified anabolic steroids as Schedule III substances. It placed them in the same legal league as amphetamines and made their use subject to radically stricter punishment. The chemicals responsible for some of the most Herculean feats in sports such as track and field, football, bodybuilding, wrestling and cycling were finally outlawed. President George Bush signed the bill, and history was made.

But today, 10 years later, nothing has changed. The drugs have saturated sports and seeped into high school gyms, turning records at all levels of sport synthetic. In the last decade, as many as 80 professional cyclists died from the reckless abuse of the performance-enhancing drug EPO. And as more and more links are established between anabolic steroids and heart and liver diseases, the recent deaths of athletes like Florence Griffith Joyner and Walter Payton have come under suspicion.

Because of the steroid backlash of the late 1980s, there has been an increase in drug testing in most sports. But experts like Terence Todd, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Texas at Austin who was also a champion weight lifter in the mid-'60s, point out that today there are also many more drugs. Drugs that were used by athletes in the '50s and '60s would be considered placebos in today's pharmacy of performance enhancers.

Strength athletes such as offensive linemen and bodybuilders are pumping themselves with dosages up to 20 times greater than what doctors recommend for legitimate steroid candidates such as AIDS and cancer patients and children with growth-dysfunction diseases. Endurance athletes, particularly professional cyclists, use drugs that mask the presence of illegal blood-doping chemicals in their systems, effectively immunizing themselves against the possibility of testing positive.

Most disconcerting of all, however, is the fact that the fastest-growing group of steroid users in the United States is not professional athletes, but everyday body-conscious people looking for the social accolades that come with having a comic-book-hero physique. According to a study conducted by Dr. Charles Yesalis, a professor at Penn State University and an expert on anabolic steroids, 33 percent of steroid users take the drugs solely for cosmetic effects.

This group includes entertainers such as pro wrestlers (Jesse Ventura has a steroid-laden past) and actors like Sylvester Stallone and former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger, ironically, was nominated to chair President George Bush's Council on Physical Fitness shortly after Bush signed Sen. Biden's crackdown bill on steroids.

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Short of a major cultural overhaul, it is very difficult to alter the American perception of the perfect body, says Alan Klein, a sociology professor at Northeastern University. In 1993 Klein authored "Little Big Men," an examination of the bizarre subculture of professional bodybuilding. To research the book he spent years entrenched in the bowels of Los Angeles' most hardcore gyms. He considers bodybuilders to be extremists with a body-image obsession. Psychological dysfunction occurs at the highest levels of bodybuilding, he says, and the same forces are at work in the minds of average steroid users in search of aesthetic perfection.

"Bodybuilding is a social pose," says Klein. "There's nothing athletic about it." The granite physiques of those who strut through prestigious competitions like Mr. America and Mr. Olympia are carved from chemicals. Cycling through various combinations of anabolic steroids results in the grotesque muscle separation and the taut, vein-mapped skin displayed on stage.

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Professional bodybuilding is perhaps the only sport in which steroid use is unavoidable. "You'd have to be a fool to go up on stage without [steroids]," says Klein.

Recently, a minor upheaval in the bodybuilding community resulted in a cluster of natural bodybuilding competitions and magazines. But, according to Klein, "Nobody is going to look at the cover of a natural bodybuilding magazine and say, 'Gosh damn, I'd rather look like him than Lee Haney.'" (Haney is a bodybuilding legend who won the Mr. Olympia title eight times.) Whether people are fascinated by its freak-show quality or they legitimately admire its hulking physiques, the world of steroid-manufactured muscle fosters an urge for emulation. "I understand the appeal of the look of power to a pimply-faced post-adolescent teenager," says Klein.

Experts say steroid users do not understand the potentially horrific risks associated with anabolic steroid abuse. Steroids are not physically addictive, but they can create a mental dependency. For the most religious steroid users, especially pro bodybuilders, Klein says, it is impossible to quit "without suffering major psychological consequences." Bodybuilders like Steve Mihalik, a former world-class competitor, have reported feeling suicidal and having the sensation of melting away, as the body readjusts to its normal levels by dissolving pounds of muscle.

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Steroids can also flick switches in the user's mind, altering personalities and inciting overly aggressive behavior, commonly called "'roid rage." Diane Williams says she was sexually voracious during her steroid cycles; professor Todd says that steroids can act as a triggering mechanism for violent behavior. Last year, a Sports Illustrated article reported on the unusual number of bodybuilders behind bars for homicide: Bertil Fox, a former Mr. Universe, is incarcerated for the murders of his girlfriend and his girlfriend's mother. California bodybuilder John Riccardi awaits execution for a double homicide. Another California muscleman, Gordon Kimbrough, is serving 27 years to life for the murder of his fiancie. A female strength prodigy, Sally McNeil, is serving a life sentence for the murder of her bodybuilder husband. The list continues; while Todd cautions against classifying all bodybuilders as pathologically prone, no other sport comes close to paralleling bodybuilding's criminal record.

The physical effects of steroid abuse can be equally devastating. Immediate effects in men can include shrinking of the testes and severe acne. Since anabolic steroids boost testosterone levels, women manifest their effects to startling degrees. Women are virilized; their voices can deepen, menstruation becomes irregular or nonexistent, they can experience male-pattern baldness and risk sterility.

In either sex, however, the organs most susceptible to steroid abuse are the heart and liver. Former NFL lineman Steve Courson developed cardiomyopathy -- a condition that enlarges the heart and causes it to weaken -- toward the end of his eight-year football career in 1985. Throughout his stint in the NFL, Courson, who has two Super Bowl rings, was injecting and ingesting massive quantities of steroids. Doctors cannot confirm that his condition, which is terminal without transplantation, is linked to steroid use. Courson maintains that rampant steroid use was condoned by the NFL and that his ailment is no coincidence. He sued the league for full disability benefits, but in June the courts denied his claim. He is now appealing the decision.

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Eric Marciano, the writer, director and producer of "Artificial Athletes: The Dangers of Steroids," an educational video highly touted by the FBI, classifies Courson's NFL era (which lasted from the mid-'70s to the mid-'80s) as football's "golden age of steroids" -- an era that also included Hall-of-Fame running back Walter Payton.

Like Florence Griffith Joyner's mysterious demise in 1998, Payton's death from bile-duct cancer this month will never conclusively be pegged on steroids. Evelyn Ashford, apparently one of the few track stars to compete chemical-free, won the Olympic 100-meter gold in 1984. Pat Connolly, a former Olympian who coached Ashford, suggests that Payton's recent passing has to be regarded as suspicious. "For every person who knows about steroids or has used them," she says, "the first thought that passed through our minds when we heard of Walter's liver problem was that it might be steroid-related."

Connolly is among the few sports insiders who have taken an adamant stand against steroids in sports. She testified alongside Williams and Ashford at the Senate hearings in 1989, and she took considerable flak for her respectful but blunt remembrance published in the New York Times after FloJo's death. She wrote that "Florence's face changed ... her muscles bulged as if she had been born with a barbell in her crib ... It was difficult not to wonder if she was taking some kind of performance enhancing drugs."

Connolly maintains that the key to steroid eradication lies in early education. Studies conducted by Dr. Yesalis indicate that 38 percent of steroid users are introduced to the drugs before the age of 15 and that the number of high school males who have used anabolic steroids sometime in their lives is approximately 375,000, or an astounding one in 15. Most encounter steroids from peers or through the Internet, where a mind-boggling array of sites can easily furnish an illicit home pharmacy of performance-enhancing drugs.

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Unfortunately, there is very little organized activism against the abuse of steroids. The only recognized prevention efforts are a Portland, Ore., program called ATLAS (Adolescent Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids), which has made considerable headway in the Pacific Northwest, and Marciano's educational video. Teenagers and amateur fitness fanatics have otherwise been left to their own decision-making devices -- something Todd sees as a bad omen.

He refers to two independent sociological surveys of recreational but competitive runners and bodybuilders. Each group of approximately 100 athletes was given what he calls a most "Faustian bargain": The athletes could take a magic substance that would transform them into uncontested world champions. The athletes could live at world-record levels for a year, but at the end of that year, they would die. According to Todd, when asked if they would be willing to make that bargain, slightly over half answered yes. Obviously, says Todd, the possibility of a little extra acne or the long-term chance of a weakened heart is not going to curb steroid abuse. "If even the certainty of death isn't always a deterrent," he says, "what can we expect to stop it?"


Andrew Taber

Andrew Taber is a producer at New York Today, the arts and entertainment Web site of the New York Times.

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