What are steroids?
Anabolic steroids are synthetic versions of testosterone, the male sex hormone. Don’t confuse anabolic steroids with steroid medications, such as prednisone and hydrocortisone, which doctors prescribe to treat asthma, skin inflammation, and other conditions.
What do they do?
By helping the body use protein, steroids help muscles grow quickly.
Why do athletes use them?
They can increase an athlete’s strength and stamina, providing a competitive edge.
Are they legal?
Doctors can prescribe steroids for certain medical conditions, but every major sports organization—including the International Olympic Committee and professional baseball, football, hockey, and basketball leagues in the U.S.—has now banned the use of steroids. Many athletes began using steroids in the years before they were banned, however.
Which athletes have admitted using steroids, or tested positive for them?
In baseball, “The List” of 104 players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 included Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz. Other players who have admitted using steroids include Jason Giambi, Jose Canseco, Ken Caminiti, and Mark McGuire. Barry Bonds—who holds the record for most career home runs—has denied knowingly using them. He testified that his trainer told him the substances he was using were an arthritis balm and flaxseed oil. (Although his urine sample tested negative in 2003, it was later retested and came back positive for a “designer steroid” that was undetectable in 2003.) Bonds was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice; in April 2011, a jury convicted him of one count of obstruction of justice, for giving evasive, false, or misleading statements in testimony before a grand jury, but the jury failed to agree on whether he had perjured himself.
In other sports:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, during his bodybuilding days.
Cyclist Floyd Landis
Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, Olympic runners
What are the health risks of using anabolic steroids?
Experts warn of many possible health risks, including high blood pressure, acne, liver damage, infertility, mood swings, cancer, premature heart attacks and strokes, stunted growth (caused by premature closing of growth plates in adolescents), male pattern baldness, impotence, psychotic episodes, growth of breasts in men, growth of facial and body hair among women, and shrinking of breasts in women. Dr. Gary Wadler, NYU School of Medicine professor and lead author of Drugs and the Athlete, warns that unsupervised use, “megadosing,” and combining different steroids can lead to irreversible side-effects, some of which may not develop until years after an athlete stops taking steroids.
What are the arguments against allowing athletes to use steroids?
• Athletic competition should be fair. Some athletes shouldn’t have an advantage over the rest.
• Steroids carry health risks. If some athletes use them, that puts pressure on others to use them, too, or they’ll be competing at a disadvantage. This spreads the health risks to more and more athletes—including adolescents. If steroids are legalized, every serious athlete will be virtually forced to use them.
• Athletes are role models for young people. If they use drugs to perform better, then young people will follow their example, possibly injuring their own health.
• The athletic ideals of hard work and fair play are worth preserving. The win-at-all-costs attitude is the ugly opposite of the ideal, and chemically altering one’s body in order to win is grotesque.
• Parents don’t want their children to have to take drugs in order to compete in high school and college sports.
What are the arguments for allowing athletes to use steroids?
• Athletes have been seeking ways to gain a competitive edge since the time of the ancient Greeks. (Some ate nothing but meat; others ate sheeps’ testicles to raise their testosterone levels.) Steroids are just the latest tool in the eternal quest for victory.
• Bringing steroids into the open would benefit athletes, because they could then use the drugs safely, under medical supervision. At present, steroid users have to buy their drugs underground, where there is no quality control to ensure product safety.
• Outlawing steroids is just puritanical paternalism: people in authority telling everyone else what they can and can’t do, for their own good. Athletes aren’t children, and we don’t need to decide for them whether or not they should use performance-enhancing drugs.
• The health risks have been exaggerated, as a scare tactic. Look at professional athletes who have admitted to steroid use: do any of them suffer from the health problems steroids supposedly cause?
• Drug researchers will always stay one step ahead of those who design the tests. Since it’s impossible to eliminate steroids from sports, bringing them into the open would level the playing field.
How do you pronounce “steroids”?
The American Heritage Dictionary lists two acceptable pronunciations. You can say either “STEH-roids” or “STEER-oids,” but the first is more common.
Terms to know
“the clear” and “the cream”: steroids that Jason Giambi admitted using, which were designed to be undetectable by drug tests of the time
designer steroids: drugs designed to escape detection
doping: using performance-enhancing drugs to gain an advantage in sports
HGH: Human growth hormone. HGH increases muscle mass, and is often taken together with steroids.
The Mitchell Report: a report on the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances in professional baseball, released in 2007, based on a 21-month investigation by former Senator George Mitchell
PEDs: performance-enhancing drugs
stacking: using a combination of different steroids at the same time
A brief timeline
1935 German scientists develop anabolic steroids as a treatment for deficiency of testosterone.
1954 The Soviet Union dominates the sport of weightlifting. A Soviet team doctor tells John Ziegler, a doctor traveling with the U.S. weightlifting team, that he gives his athletes testosterone injections. Ziegler begins research to create a drug with the muscle-building power of testosterone but without unwanted side effects.
1958 Ciba Pharmaceuticals markets Ziegler’s anabolic steroid, calling it, “Dianabol.”
1975 The International Olympic Committee bans anabolic steroids.
1976 East German women win 11 of the 13 individual gold medals in swimming. Fifteen years later, East German coaches will admit giving anabolic steroids to their swimmers.
1988 At the Seoul Olympics, Ben Johnson breaks the world record in the 100 meters, with a time of 9.79 seconds. When an anabolic steroid is found in his urine sample, however, he loses his gold medal.
1993 After the reunification of Germany, records show that the East German secret police supervised the doping of that country’s athletes from 1971 to 1990.
2002 Retired baseball player Ken Caminiti admits that he was using steroids when he won the 1996 National League MVP award. He estimates that at least half of professional ballplayers use steroids regularly.
2003 The Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) is named by an informant as the maker and distributor of an undetectable steroid widely used by athletes. Athletes including Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and Gary Sheffield are subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury.
2004 The New York Times reports that 5-20% of the 10,000 East German athletes who used steroids are suffering severe health problems including liver tumors, heart disease, testicular or breast cancer, infertility, depression, or miscarriages.
2005 In his book, Juiced, Jose Canseco admits using steroids throughout his career and says that sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa used steroids as well
2006 Cyclist Floyd Landis wins the Tour de France—but tests positive for elevated levels of testosterone.
2007 Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron’s career home-run record with his 756th homer. Bonds denies ever knowingly using steroids, but a re-tested urine sample comes back positive for two previously undetectable steroids.
2007 The Mitchell Report on steroid use in baseball implicates more than 80 current and former major league players.
What about Lance Armstrong?
The champion cyclist, seven-time Tour de France winner, cancer survivor and cancer-research fundraiser was accused of doping by former teammate Floyd Landis and others. (Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title after he failed a drug test). On 10/22/12, following a report by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency citing “overwhelming” evidence, the International Cycling Union stripped Armstrong of his seven Tour de France titles. Armstrong denied having used performance-enhancing drugs until his January, 2013 interview with Oprah Winfrey, in which he admitted that he had used testosterone and human growth hormone, as well as blood transfusions. The International Olympic Committee has stripped him of his bronze medal from the 2000 Games. For more, see CNN.
• 7/22/10: Minor-league baseball players will soon face blood tests to detect human growth hormone. Olympic athletes are already subject to blood testing, but this will be the first time professional athletes in the U.S. will face the tests. For more details, see this article in the New York Times.
• 8/20/10: Pitcher Roger Clemens is indicted by a federal grand jury. He’s charged with lying to Congress by denying that he ever used performance-enhancing drugs. See the New York Times for details.
• Three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador has tested positive for clenbuterol, a banned substance. The cyclist, who won the race in 2007, 2009, and 2010, blamed contaminated food for the positive test result. See this September, 2010 ESPN story for details.
• 8/5/11: The NFL players’ union has agreed to blood tests for human growth hormone—making it the first major American sports league to do so with the consent of a players’ union.
• 2/6/12: Albert Contador has been stripped of his 2010 Tour de France title because of positive tests for a performance-enhancing drug, clenbuterol. He has also been banned from cycling competitions for two years.
NPR: summary of a radio debate hosted by Bob Costas, with links to audio files
Ready to learn more? Start with these links
For a list of baseball players who have admitted using steroids or been implicated in investigations: go here.
For a detailed timeline of steroids in sports: go here.
On the difference between steroids and HGH (human growth hormone): see this article from Slate.com.
For an in-depth article on the impact of steroids on the lives of four baseball hopefuls, see Sports Illustrated. (The article includes the startling fact that “In the nine seasons before steroid testing, players crashed the 50-home run threshold 18 times, the 60-home run barrier six times. In the nine seasons with testing, there have been only six 50-homer seasons. Nobody has hit 60.”)
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Last Updated 4/2/13