Home > Articles > Patrick Cox
PUMPING Up Steroid Hysteria
by Patrick Cox
originally appeared February 11, 2004 in Tech Central
Station. It has been reprinted with permission. [http://www.techcentralstation.com]
Perhaps because I lagged well behind my peer
group, physically at least, until I was well into my
twenties, most of my childhood associations with
sports are unpleasant. The shortest and most
physically maladroit kid in class after class after
class, I was the perennial last-pick when teams
formed on playgrounds or PE classes.
Today, my eyes still glaze over when friends talk
playoffs and draft picks, and the only games I really
care about are those my eleven-year-old son
participates in. I suppose it is ironic, therefore,
that a serious car accident, while in college, has
forced me into a lifelong study of exercise
physiology, kinesiology and other sports-related
sciences. As sufficient muscle mass seems to be the
only alternative to a spinal brace and handfuls of
painkillers, I have found myself following or
involved in discussions with athletes and trainers
more often than many sports writers.
Those associated with bodybuilding, in particular,
have pushed the envelope of muscle growth to the
greatest extent and are particularly knowledgeable
concerning training injuries. While flexing in a
bikini bottom probably fails some definitions of
sport, no other group trains harder or is as
interested and involved in the scientific research
behind their sport.
And, like other elite athletes, many take anabolic
President Bush, a former managing partner of the
Texas Rangers, addressed the issue in his State of
the Union speech.
"The use of performance-enhancing drugs
like steroids in baseball, football, and other
sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong
message -- that there are shortcuts to
accomplishment, and that performance is more
important than character. So tonight I call on
team owners, union representatives, coaches, and
players to take the lead, to send the right
signal, to get tough, and to get rid of steroids
Pundits and sports writers alike have puzzled over
the unexpected inclusion of the steroid issue in the
speech. My own theory is that the comments are
penance meant to appease cultural conservatives who
were unhappy about the President's friendly public
appearances with the Governor of California, who has
brazenly used drugs in the past.
For dedicated drug warriors, Schwarzenegger is a
particular irritant. Despite smoking marijuana
onscreen in Pumping Iron and confessing his steroid
use on national television, his unprecedented
popularity and success in bodybuilding, show biz and
politics makes it difficult to paint cannabis smokers
as "losers" or steroid users as mere
The other admitted steroid-using governor/athlete
was professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, whom they
could ignore. Arnold cannot be ignored.
Whatever the president's reasons for including the
issue in the SOTU, his repetition of defective
assumptions about steroid use will likely have
far-ranging and unfortunate consequences.
Most notably, the president repeated the adage
that "The use of performance-enhancing drugs
like steroids ... is dangerous."
The medical evidence simply does not support such
a statement. On the contrary, the most commonly taken
and prescribed anabolic steroid, testosterone,
effectively ameliorates many of the symptoms of
aging, including loss of libido
(for women and men,) lean muscle mass, and memory.
An estimated 2 million U.S. prescriptions for
testosterone were written in 2002 and IMS Health has
calculated nearly 30 percent annual growth
While skeptical researchers warn that additional
research is needed, as they always will, the evidence
indicates that the feared downsides of steroid use,
such as heart
disease and prostate
cancer, have been greatly overstated or contrary
to their actual effects. Studies correlate low
testosterone levels to Alzheimer's
disease and obesity.
The more potent androgens, traditionally acquired
on the black market by athletes, have suffered even
worse press than testosterone, in large part because
they are schedule III drugs -- as are barbiturates,
ketamine, LSD precursors, and narcotic painkillers
such as Vicodin. Much of what is now known about the
benefits of these steroids, by the way, is a result
of their successful use by the HIV community
to improve, dramatically in many cases, the health
and survivability of immunodeficient patients. As
AIDS and age-related wasting have much in common, the
potential for steroid therapy to increase and
maintain vigor and muscle mass through and past
middle age is profound.
Nandrolone Decanoate is a powerful component,
along with Testosterone Cypionate, of a synergistic
"stack" popular among athletes.
"Longevity clinics," having learned from
the experiences of millions of illegal steroid users,
are now prescribing, at boutique prices, these drugs.
In clinical trials, Nandrolone has been shown to
system functioning, counter the effects of
malnutrition and muscle loss experienced by dialysis
patients, increase bone mineral density and
dramatically improve the well-being of elderly
patients with Osteoporosis.
Tracy Olrich, of Central Michigan University's
Department of Physical Education and Sport, says the
emerging consensus is that benefits of therapeutic
steroid use vastly outweigh the risks, and points out
that, for decades, according to conservative
estimates, over a million people at any one time have
taken illegal steroids. Only eleven deaths, and most
of them only indirectly caused by steroids, he says,
have been linked to their use. "Compare
that," Olrich prompts, "to smoking, liposuction
or bicycle riding."
Liposuction's shockingly high death rate is
estimated to be between 30 and 1000 per million
patients. An equally useful comparison would be to
the sporting activities steroids supposedly imperil; amateur
football, for example. According to the
University of North Carolina-based National Center
for Catastrophic Sports Injuries, out of the
approximately 1.5 million American football players
in junior high, high-school and college. Fifteen died
in 2002 -- down from 23 in 2001.
Throw in heatstroke deaths and paralysis, and
football stats read like a Dean Koontz horror novel,
though track and field, baseball, and even
cheerleading have greater incidences of catastrophic
injuries. The Consumer Product Safety Commission
recorded 88 deaths in youth league baseball from 1973
to 1995. Other researchers
estimate more than 100,000 acute baseball
injuries, including serious eye traumas, annually in
5- to 14-year-old children.
It is no secret that, even without a career-ending
injury, many professional athletes retire with
various degrees of infirmity. Obviously, opposition
to athletic steroid use has never been about health.
It is about using government to create an image of
"fairness" for the sports industry.
perhaps the leading authority on steroid law and
author of the book, Legal Muscle,
says that the stripping of Canadian sprinter Ben
Johnson's 100-meter gold medal at the Seoul Olympics
in 1988, after testing positive for stanozolol,
prompted the media frenzy that led to Congressional
action. He explains, "The Congress of the late
1980's, intent upon 'leveling the playing field,'
seems to have simply assumed that the terrible
dangers of these hormones were well established, and
didn't want to hear otherwise. Congress ignored the
representatives of government regulatory agencies
including the FDA, the DEA and the National Institute
on Drug Abuse who testified against the proposed
amendment to the law. Congress disregarded the
American Medical Association's position that steroid
abuse does not lead to the physical or psychological
dependence required for scheduling."
"It was to appease the organized sports lobby
and restore public confidence in sports,"
Collins says, "that Congress passed the Anabolic
Steroid Control Act of 1990, adding steroids to
the federal schedule of controlled substances.
"But the law and similar state statutes reach
far beyond the Olympic and elite level athletes for
which they were originally intended. Most people
using steroids non-medically are not competitive
athletes. The laws criminalize 'cosmetic' and
unprescripted therapeutic steroid use for all mature
adults, including the millions who are using them
illegally simply to lose weight and gain muscle, and
prevent physicians from prescribing steroids to
healthy adults for such purposes.
"Did the approach work on the original
problem? Well, here we are -- many years, numerous
hearings and one sweeping law later -- back at
'square one,' still wrestling with the same problem
of steroids in sports. Worse still, the legislation
actually created new problems, such as a massive
foreign black market, a culture of professional
ignorance within the medical community, and a slew of
arrests and prosecutions of mature non-competing
users for personal use possession."
Germane to this issue are all the usual
anti-prohibitionist arguments explicated by William
Buckley, founder of the pro-legalization National
Review magazine, Nobel prize-winning economist Milton
Friedman, and George Schultz, President Reagan's
adviser who served as both secretary of state and the
treasury. The difference, of course, is that other
drugs with similar possession penalties lack the
dramatic therapeutic attributes of steroids.
Certainly, the sports business has the right to
try to eliminate performance-enhancing drugs, just as
it has the recreational sort, gambling, spousal abuse
and infidelity. All efforts should be made to keep
them out of the hands of children, but you don't have
to be an economist to predict that nothing will end
steroid use in professions where only a slight,
marginal increase in strength or speed can translate
into tens of millions of dollars. For athletes who
can easily afford to jet down to a Tijuana sports
clinic for legal, discreet bimonthly injections of
designer steroids, invisible
to testing technologies, performance-enhancing
drugs are not just rational, they are a competitive
Though I have no experience with illegal steroids,
I have taken the less powerful but legal, under the Dietary Supplement Health
and Education Act of 1993,
"prohormones." These precursors convert in
the body to muscle building androgens and, especially
when dealing with my spinal condition, they have been
enormously helpful in building the cushion and
support that prevent extreme pain and the loss of
nerve signal. Many of my middle-aged and older
friends have, similarly, used over-the-counter
prohormone products to deal with the increasingly
difficult goal, due to reductions in natural hormone
levels with age, of maintaining muscle and healing
from training and other injuries.
Because a thriving market exists for these
products, there are a wide variety of prohormone
products and many are actually more useful than those
available by prescription, if you can find a
cooperative, knowledgeable doctor. For instance,
short-acting testosterone or nandralone precursor
products, created by the bodybuilder scientist who
has pioneered the field of steroidal prohormones, Patrick Arnold, provide
the benefits of FDA-approved patches and injectables
but are far less likely do "down-regulate"
natural testosterone production.
Unfortunately, the President's steroid lecture has
added considerable wind to the sails of those calling
for a ban on these legal OTC
"performance-enhancing substances." Sen.
Joseph Biden introduced the "Anabolic Steroid
Control Act of 2003" that would expand the
current list of 27 illegal compounds to over 50
compounds and expressly named isomers, plus all their
salts, esters and ethers. The thriving
over-the-counter prohormone or "andro"
market would be destroyed.
"Significantly," Collins notes,
"the bill ... would direct the U.S. Sentencing
Commission to consider raising the punishments for
all steroid offenses.
"If the bill is passed, the likely result
will be that tomorrow's penalties -- including prison
terms -- for possession of andro products will be
significantly higher than today's penalties for
possession of traditional anabolic steroids. It's
also likely that state laws will be amended to
conform to the new federal schedule, empowering local
law enforcement to arrest mature adults and prosecute
them in state court for possessing even a single
prohormone tablet. The bill already has at least five
co-sponsors, including influential Senators Orrin
Hatch, Tom Harkin, and John McCain."
As millions of customers have been introduced to
the benefits of androgen supplementation through
legal prohormones, one can safely assume that many
will turn to the black market for replacements if
they are banned. One can also assume that this is
exactly what organized criminals wish to happen.
Lastly, I think I should point out that my father
died from wasting-related complications when a series
of ailments prevented him from working out, as he had
done his whole life. I was unsuccessful in convincing
him or his doctor to use steroids to counter his
failing strength and immune system, largely because
of the prevalence of the sort of anti-steroid
hysteria that has been encouraged by the president's
comments. I believe firmly that he would be alive
today if our society had not put the interests of
professional sports ahead of the people's.
About the Author
Patrick Cox is an economist and editorial
columnist in Central Florida where he lives on an
island in a remnant of original everglades. He has
worked for various market-oriented policy groups as
well as a consultant for tech firms in Silicon
Valley. His work has appeared in various publications
including the Wall Street Journal, USA Today and Reason Magazine.