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Steroids focus of debate on drugs in sports

Posted: Saturday November 29, 2003 1:48PM; Updated: Saturday November 29, 2003 1:52PM
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Steroids expert Bob Goldman has surveyed hundreds of athletes every few years for two decades, from bodybuilders to Olympians to pros.

He wanted to know how far athletes will go to win. The answer: to the grave.

"I made up a hypothetical magic pill. I told them they'd win every competition for five years, but then die from it," Goldman says.

Each time he has taken the survey, more than half the athletes have said they would take the pill.

That "magic pill" isn't available quite yet, but that doesn't stop athletes from searching for one. And there are plenty of places to look. A few clicks on the Internet is all it takes to fill an athlete's medicine kit.

Human growth hormone. Stanozolol. Nandrolone.

All are banned from most sports and illegal for Americans to use without a doctor's prescription. However, they are readily available from chemical company Web sites in other countries, including China.

The latest headlines have been devoted to THG, a newly unmasked steroid that until this summer was undetectable in antidoping tests. Five track and field athletes face two-year suspensions after testing positive, and four Oakland Raiders reportedly also have flunked THG tests.

But bodybuilders and experts on America's muscle subculture -- who share thoughts in magazines such as Testosterone Nation -- say THG is just one of many designer steroids that have been available for years.

"There are thousands and thousands of ways you could modify a steroid to change its structure and avoid detection," steroids researcher William LLewellyn says. "It's not tremendously difficult to create something like THG. You don't need to envision a big underground lab -- someone could do it in their house. You need three chemicals and a few small pieces of equipment.

"I think athletes are constantly looking for the next thing they can use before it becomes banned or becomes detectable. Ever since there's been testing, there's always been a search for ways to beat the tests."

Many of the people using such drugs are average guys at the corner gym who want to look macho. It is unclear how many professional athletes actually use steroids, and the usage varies from sport to sport.

But the current focus on THG, and a San Francisco federal grand jury's probe into a nutritional supplements lab that supplied some of the nation's top athletes, has cast a long shadow over all sports and some athletes.

Barry Bonds is one. He is directly linked to two people named as targets of the grand jury probe, and his home-run hitting feats in his late 30s have led to suspicions about steroid use -- which he has repeatedly denied.

Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson, is one of the grand jury targets. Another is Victor Conte, founder of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative. Bonds became a BALCO client just before the 2001 season -- in which he hit a record 73 homers -- and has credited Conte for a personalized nutritional program.

During a conference call last week to announce his unprecedented third straight National League MVP award, three of the 13 questions to Bonds were about steroids. One focused on Anderson, whom Bonds said has been a friend since childhood.

"I don't know what a person does after they leave me," Bonds said. "I know a lot of people, but that doesn't mean I'm involved in anything. And I think it's not right to single me out because I know somebody or I've been to the GNC store."

Athletes who achieve personal bests late in their careers, or suddenly post results far beyond their previous norms, also come under suspicion -- and in some cases those doubts are warranted.

Such examples include Regina Jacobs, who at 39 became the first woman to break the four-minute mark indoors for 1,500 meters. Or shot putter Kevin Toth, who had the longest toss in 13 years in April and then won his first national championship in June.

Jacobs and Toth tested positive for THG this summer.

"Drugs in competitive sports certainly are a lot more prevalent than people believe. I would say a vast majority of athletes are using performance-enhancing compounds out there," says Llewellyn, whose Jupiter, Fla.-based Molecular Nutrition company has created several popular nutritional supplements.

Steroids experts disagree over the long-term impact of the discovery of THG and subsequent vows by the NFL, major league baseball and other leagues to toughen testing to weed out drug users.

As long as steroids are effective and winning at all costs remains the overriding goal, experts say, some athletes will decide that the rewards of drug use outweigh the risks, which include penalties imposed by their sports and serious bodily harm.

Some non-athletes also are willing to take such risks.

Goldman, a Chicago doctor and president of the National Academy of Sports Medicine, once treated a 6-foot-5, 270-pound bodybuilder whose steroid use led to severe acne and other health problems.

The man rationalized his continuing drug abuse by telling Goldman: "I don't ever want to be small again."

Steroids build muscles and allow elite athletes to recover more quickly while training, but side effects can range from heart disease to liver damage to rage.

Dr. Norm Fost, director of the program in medical ethics at the University of Wisconsin school of medicine, argues that the health risks of steroid use have been overblown -- and are much less than the dangers of playing contact sports such as football.

"All the risks are reversible or unfounded," he says. "And why shouldn't a competent adult be able to take risks, as they do when they play a professional sport?"

Fost, a professor of pediatrics and the history of medicine, argues that steroids and all other drugs should be allowed in sports. Sure they give users an advantage, but he argues that many other legal factors -- genetics, diet, wealth, access to gyms -- also give some athletes advantages.

"The Olympics used to be run nude, and then somebody put on shoes and there was a great hue and cry about whether that was fair or not," he says. "Drugs are a relatively modern phenomenon, but seeking a competitive advantage has been going on forever."

Michael Johnson, who was nearly invincible in the 200 and 400 meters in the 1990s and now has become a stern critic of runners who take drugs, points out that drugs do not miraculously turn a couch potato into an Olympic champion.

"You have to have talent to begin with. If you take someone who doesn't have the talent to be a world-class athlete and give them steroids, it doesn't make them a world-class athlete," he said.

The grand jury in San Francisco already has heard from NFL and baseball players, as well as track and field stars such as Olympic champion Marion Jones and 100-meter world-record holder Tim Montgomery. Bonds is to appear Dec. 4 before the panel. None of the athletes is a target of the probe.

While the grand jurors investigate drug and tax issues involving BALCO, the lab also is suspected of supplying athletes with THG -- a charge Conte denies.

The International Olympic Committee is considering whether to retest samples from the 2002 Winter Games for THG, and U.S. pro leagues have promised to crack down on drug use -- though baseball's new plan for steroid testing has been ridiculed as ineffective.

Yet even if drug testing becomes more effective at wiping out steroid use, experts say there always will be cheating in sports -- and there always will be a market for substances that unnaturally enhance human performance.

Goldman remembers warning of steroids-related health risks to one weightlifter. He responded: "At least I'll be huge in the coffin."

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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