The Why Files The Why Files --

The Steroid Story

POSTED 16 DEC 2004

Steering for steroids
Just when we dared hope that the basket-brawl in Detroit might punch the endless sports-doping scandals out of the headlines, here come the steroids.

Bonds swings and  hits ball-bat and ball a blurRoaring back. Home-run king Barry Bonds stands accused of being a doper who cranked up his biceps with synthetic testosterone. Not so, he claims. That cream he rubbed on his huge muscles was plain ol' liniment, not a skin-absorbable version of the male hormone.

San Francisco Giant Barry Bonds breaks a record by hitting his 73rd home run on Oct. 7, 2001. Was Bonds’s late-career surge due to hard work -- or steroids? AP Photo/Julie Jacobson

Testosterone and its relatives are known for building muscles, and it's not just Bonds: Last year, New York Yankee slugger Jason Giambi apparently told a grand jury that he'd taken steroids to build beefcake to hit home runs.

The fallout from the doping scandal is so threatening that Are performance-enhancing drugs rampant in professional and Olympic sports?Major League Baseball and the players' union are actually considering tougher tests for dope. But don't count your chickens quite yet: on Dec. 14, 2004, the home page of pro baseball didn't mention "Bonds," "doping," or "steroid."

Still, this isn't just another sports-doping fracas. This is a steroid scandal that's "on steroids." The rhubarb erupted on Dec. 3, when ABC's 20-20 broadcast an interview with Victor Conte, godfather of BALCO, a California firm that allegedly doubled as a sport-drug think-tank and drug pipeline. Here's how 20-20 laid it out: "The use of performance-enhancing drugs among professional and Olympic athletes is rampant, according to Conte, and getting around the anti-doping rules is 'like taking candy from a baby.'

"'In short, the Olympic Games are a fraud,'" Conte says.

Conte says he'd watched track hero Marion Jones shoot up steroids. Jones is under pressure to surrender five Olympic medals, even though she has passed every drug test and swears innocence.

Slugging it out
The real steroidal bombshell focused on slugger Barry Bonds. If you don't follow "the national pastime," Bonds is the brawny San Francisco Giant who is poised to pound Hank Aaron's home-run record into the stands.

But is Bonds a legitimate homer-hitter, or just another flim-flam man? Is he a worthy heir to Aaron and Babe Ruth, or a 21st century Popeye who gets his spinach in a syringe or a skin-absorbable cream?

pills in clear bottlesIs athletic excellence found in a bottle of pills?
Photo: Congresswoman Susan A. Davis

Alarmed that an alleged doper might snare baseball's most cherished record, the sports establishment injected its own note of derision. For example, Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated: "I believe Bonds -- a man who has his own nutritionist and won't eat from the postgame spread, a man who studies his body the way a rabbi studies the Talmud -- really thought he was using a 'rubbing balm for arthritis,' as he told the grand jury, not a steroid. That's why it surprises him that the elderly can't bench-press their Oldsmobiles."

In a particularly purple piece of prose, Ian O'Connor of USA Today pronounced the current scandal as, "Watergate times Iran/Contra plus Enron for baseball, a crisis that dwarfs basketball's issues with reckless players and moronic fans. Like a shattered backboard, the national pastime's credibility lies in a million shards of glass."

Nobody told him they don't use a backboard in baseball, but still, his pitch was a strike-out.

Bonding with Barry
Bonds denies knowingly taking steroids, but admitted using creams and concoctions provided by trainer Greg Anderson, who was indicted along with Conte of BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative). Bonds thought the meds were liniment and flaxseed oil.

arm with flexed bicep and tatooMaybe. But we were intrigued by this 2003 description of Barry Bonds's body-building program in Muscle and Fitness magazine. The piece described Bonds, 39, as being "in the best shape of his life, which sounds like a hoary cliché until he peels off his shirt to expose sledgehammer biceps and thick, contoured delts worthy of Michelangelo's craftsmanship. It's the physique of a man who works at it."

Is this what steroids can do for you? Muscles courtesy of hard work, hard play, but no extra steroids.

Or is it the bod of a man who has taken a gob of steroids? In a curious triple-play, Muscle and Fitness posed Bonds next to Conte and Anderson, who would later be indicted for selling and transporting sports drugs. And while we can't be sure Bonds used steroids, he has credited BALCO for doing high-tech blood analyses that allowed him to stay strong all year long, and for writing an intimidating list of supplements that he swallowed all day long.

What are steroids and what do they do?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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