The Why Files The Why Files --

The Steroid Story

POSTED 16 DEC 2004

Hoary old hormone
Athletes have used many chemicals to improve their performance: amphetamines, insulin, even high-tech meds that grow more red-blood cells. Here, we're concentrating on anabolic steroid hormones -- essentially, testosterone and related chemicals, used to grow muscles.

bottles and packages of steroidsHormones are natural chemicals that, at microscopic concentrations, cause a reaction in a "target" tissue. Testosterone is one of the steroid hormones, produced by the adrenal glands and, at much higher levels, by the testicles. While testosterone is called the "male" hormone, both sexes have some. In boys, high levels of testosterone at puberty cause masculine development: facial hair, deepening voice, enlarged genitals.

Among the many effects of testosterone, it's the "anabolic" effect -- muscle-building -- that interests body builders, football players and sluggers.

By 1935, scientists had isolated testosterone and shown its anabolic effects.

Graph shows past year steroid use higher in grade 12 than grade 8.
Steroid use in high-school has risen slightly over the past few years.
Statistics from National Institute on Drug Abuse Monitoring the Future Survey

Rantin' 'bout 'roids
Steroids and sports go back at least to the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, says Tracy Olrich, associate professor of physical education and sport at Central Michigan University, when Soviet athletes gathered gold. "The U.S. had been dominant for years," says Olrich, "and then war-torn Russia comes and stomps us and everybody, walks away with all the gold." As recounted by Charles Yesalis, a long-time observer of the steroid issue (see "Anabolic Steroids..." in the bibliography), the rumor about steroid use were confirmed in 1954, when U.S. team doctor John Ziegler went drinking with Soviet colleagues.

Football player launches ball into the air.Ready, set, toss! And don't use steroids!

By 1958, Ziegler had introduced dianabol, a synthetic testosterone, to the U.S. weight-lifting team. "Boom," says Olrich, "you have some people making some tremendous gains. It didn't take long for the sport community to find out, and by the early 1960s, drug use had become fairly commonplace in some strength sports."

By 1968, Olympic track and field athletes (including sprinters, hurdlers and middle-distance runners) were getting juiced on steroids. We've read that one-third of the U.S. track and field team used steroids in training camp for the 1968 Olympics. Steroids were praised as the "breakfast of champions" in 1969. At the time, the debate concerned not morality but which of the many testosterone variants were most effective.

Many of these steroids had major "masculinizing" effects -- body hair, deep voice, acne, in addition to large muscle mass -- which deterred some women (at least outside the Soviet empire) from taking them. Men were more willing, even though hormones caused some to grow breasts. The result was a shower of Olympic gold medals, especially in swimming, for steroid-assisted athletes in East Germany, the Soviet Union and the United States.

In 1963, the San Diego Chargers introduced steroids to pro football, and by the late 1970s, the drugs were commonplace, if not rampant, on the field, especially among linemen. Estimates of usage in the National Football League ranged from 40 percent to 90 percent. By the 1970s, steroids were appearing in college, especially among football teams.

Smirking man holds large bottle of nutritional supplementsBALCO founder Victor Conte holding a nutritional supplements in his office in Burlingame, Calif., on Oct. 21, 2003. Conte, charged on multiple federal felonies, is at the center of the latest steroid scandal.
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Sports organizations offered varying responses to the steroid crisis, which many observers have called "too little too late." In 1976, the International Olympic Committee banned steroids. In 1986, the National Collegiate Athletic Association did likewise. Pro football and baseball responded more sluggishly.

Some athletes reacted to the bans by taking "designer steroids" -- hormones that built muscle but were too new to be on the ban lists . One of the many variants of testosterone now available, THG, was in the cream that Barry Bonds supposedly got from BALCO.

And now Bonds, the man with the golden bat, winner of seven "most valuable player" awards, stands accused of breaking homer records with a little help from the chem lab.

What's wrong with taking testosterone? Does it increase aggression?


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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