At the conclusion of the twenty-seventh Olympiad still another set of athletes was found guilty of using steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs and were sent home in disgrace. Yet the facts concerning steroids are badly misunderstood. So much that is usually said on the subject is utterly banal and repeated so often that any fourteen-year-old sports fan can trot out the clichés and deliver them with the fluency with which he pledges allegiance to the United States. One important consideration should guide our condemnations: Big Time Sport is Big Time Business. The Olympics is the biggest of the big, and the pressures to succeed are nearly overwhelming. Athletes are always seeking some edge over their competitors, and the truth of the matter is that the use of steroids, if only they were legal, would be as legitimate a means of performance enhancement as any other. The fact that they are illegal is truly unfortunate since they are not any more unnatural than any of dozens of other means to success, and the dangers of their use have been vastly exaggerated. Popular condemnation ignores the fact that there are dozens of different steroids, varying greatly in their effectiveness and safety. Most of the significant risks accompany the use of oral steroids, not injectables. Even the lesser risks are probably exaggerated but since steroids are Schedule III drugs, it is not legal to test them for their purely enhancement-performing effects. Thus there are no research trials establishing real statistical data about them. All reports about their side effects in non-medical contexts are anecdotal. Given the ideological war declared by the government and the medical establishment on steroids, we may safely presume the side effects are fewer than advertised.
The average newspaper reader is not familiar with any of the follow. Androstenedione; 19-androstenedione; 4-androstenediol; 5-androstenediol; norandrostenediol; 19-norandrostenediol; tribulus terrestris; DHEA; enzymatic conversion accelerators; growth hormone stimulators; hormone-releasing peptides. They might imagine, on hearing such unpronounceables, that these are banned substances. Of course they’d be wrong. These are the standard weapons of so-called “clean” athletes who are also looking for “an edge”. To this smorgasbord of goodies the “clean” athlete adds such other exotica as creatine ($30/month); protein powder (recommended doses three times per day at about $2 per shot, when mixed with milk – $180/month). For snacks they munch on high protein candy bars (“only” $3 each); superfuel drinks; testosterone “boosters”; yohimbine and a dozen other herbs; ten dedicated vitamin supplements in addition to their multi-vitamin, GMB, HMB and a wide variety of other alphabet magic. While the so-called “dirty cheater” spends roughly $350 to $500 per month for his steroid cocktails, the athlete who smugly declares his wholesomeness gets the job done for only $600 to $1000.
As things now stand, those who don’t use steroids are using every legal trick they know to get that “roid” look. The ads are full of pronouncements that their products “look like steroids, feel like steroids, work like steroids”. The boast is that it is all legal, too. But let’s remember our history and in particular, Al Capone’s wise expression, “the legitimate rackets”, by which Al meant to call attention to the fact that the government was no better than he was. Those with vested interests and power make legal what they want to be legal and illegal what they want to be illegal. Beware, virtue-parading people. Almost everything on that above list of “clean supplements” is susceptible to capricious removal from legitimacy by the power brokers. Already there is clamoring to reclassify androstenedione as a drug. Several sports federations haven’t bothered to wait and have self-righteously outlawed it.
Technology cannot be halted and it shouldn’t be, for eventually it comes around to the benefit of all. Serious swimmers now wear exotic outfits – full body suits, half body suits, all made of strange material – everything but what we once recognized as swim suits. The truth is that nothing is wrong with that. In track and field we now have fiberglass poles instead of the hickory shafts of eighty years ago. No one demands that vaulters go back to hickory on the grounds that fiberglass is unnatural. In 1928 a runner set a world record in the 100 yard dash but it was disallowed because he used gadgets he called “starting blocks” instead of digging “natural” holes in the ground. Within eight years it became illegal to dig holes in the ground. What had been an unfair advantage was now a requirement.
Imagine, if you will, Little Jack, a twelve-year-old child with below-average intelligence. His parents discover that a certain drug, associated with modest risks to his health, will raise his ability to study for hours on end as well as increase his powers of retention. The child agrees to try the drug. Would you deprive Little Jack of the chance to become and average to above-average student on the grounds that the drug was too expensive for most people to try it? Or on the grounds that others didn’t want to run the risks? Or even on the grounds that it was not yet legal? I hope not. Why should Jack be deprived of good opportunities while waiting for a more enlightened age?
Athletes are a docile lot. Most of them think illegality confers illegitimacy because they are told to think that. The great lesson of Plato’s dialogue EUTHYPHRO is that we should not declare anything immoral merely because it is illegal. That is putting the proverbial cart before the horse.
Technology has also struck home in powerlifting where the use of the bench shirt has revolutionized our sense of what is possible. The bench shirt is so tight that a person needs at least two strong men to help him don his shirt and it takes over three minutes. He needs the same help removing it when he is done. The shirt permits an initial thrust that allows the lifter to lift as much as twenty pounds more than he could ever do “raw”. How ironic it is that no sinister steroid has yet been discovered that gives the same pluck for the buck that this entirely legal shirt gives. In truth, steroids are no more “unfair” than bench shirts. It is hypocritical for lifters who use bench shirts (nearly all of them) to boast they never go near steroids.
Advantages are sometimes called unfair because they may not have been earned. Yet unearned advantages may still be legitimate. Genes yield unearned advantages. Most competitions are won because of some advantages that cannot be compensated for. Steroids do not work like magic. They do give direct physiological advantages but the main advantage they give is increased capacity for hard work. Take steroids all you want but never exercise and your body will still look like that of the skinny kid in the Charles Atlas ads who got sand kicked in his face.
Professional athletes, like violinists, need to be as good as they can be. Isaac Stern uses a violin worth $100,000 and this gives him an advantage, over and above his technical superiority, to the ordinary member of an ordinary orchestra. The audience demands nothing less. If you pay $50 to hear Stern play you definitely don’t want him showing up with his son’s $50 violin. The professional athlete has an obligation to his fans in a similar way. Crowds are much larger at men’s professional basketball games that at women’s. The reason is simple: the level of play is much better. Advocates of the women’s game claim it can be just as exciting as men’s basketball, given its own terms. This claim is easily seen to be disingenuous when you realized the same can be said for junior high school basketball. Nobody is advocating that we should pay lots of money to watch those kids play.
Steroids improve the level of performance. Ben Johnson ran faster and Bulgarian weightlifters lift more thanks to steroids. That is good for sport, not bad. Why should I, as a fan, care whether Ben drank $180 per month of protein drinks and paid another $800 for legal substances who names I can barely pronounce or, instead, jabbed himself with needles filled with nandrolone? Let sport be recognized for what it is – professional entertainment. For all the money they have to lay out, fans are entitled to the best possible performances. Why, the, should they have to put up with the inferior performances of the nondrug users? I say BAN THEM. Recently a swimmer in the Olympics took about two minutes to swim 100 meters. This “performance” was treated as a human interest story that ran many times on television but the truth is that it is contrary to the Olympic spirit “of higher and faster”. The Olympics would not have been broadcast at all if there were more athletes like that swimmer.
The non-steroid user, despite his enormous bill of a $1000 per month, trying to be competitive, manages to be competitive only because better athletes are unfairly being kept out of sports. In a recent bizarre turn of events, athletes in the Paralympics were tossed out for drug use. Even the handicapped are not allowed to use their limbs better! Of course, some elite handicapped athletes have sleek wheelchairs that ordinary handicapped athletes can’t afford and so they fly over marathon courses at three minutes per mile. And this is better than using nandrolone? Frankly, I don’t get it. I would rather not ban anyone but if I had to ban someone I’d prefer to ban one who uses a high tech machine to one who injects himself with a steroid.
We know that steroid use runs risks just as aspirin does and we know, too, that steroids are not nearly so dangerous as an overdose of alcohol or constant use of cigarettes. It really is as simple as this: unprejudiced people know steroid use is, for the most part, good, not bad. Let’s get the word out.