A scenario, from a 1995 poll of 198 sprinters, swimmers, powerlifters and other assorted athletes, most of them U.S. Olympians or aspiring Olympians: You are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance, with two guarantees: 1) You will not be caught. 2) You will win. Would you take the substance?
One hundred and ninety-five athletes said yes; three said no.
Scenario II: You are offered a banned performance-enhancing substance that conies with two guarantees: 1) You will not be caught. 2) You will win every competition you enter for the next five years, and then you will die from the side effects of the substance. Would you take it?
More than half the athletes said yes.
It is no secret that performance-enhancing drugs have been used by Olympians for decades, or that athletes will do almost anything to gain a competitive edge. (Chicago physician and author Bob Goldman has conducted the above survey every two years since 1982 and has gotten more or less the same response each time.) What is surprising is that 25 years after the introduction of supposedly rigorous drug testing of Olympic athletes, the use of banned performance-enhancing substances has apparently become more widespread, and effective, than ever. "There may be some sportsmen who can win gold medals without taking drugs, but there are very few," says Dutch physician Michel Karsten, who claims to have prescribed anabolic steroids to hundreds of world-class athletes from swimming, track and field and the non-Olympic sport of powerlifting over the last 25 years. "If you are especially gifted, you may win once, but from my experience you can't continue to win without drugs. The held is just too filled with drug users."
The word steroids calls to mind 325-pound NFL linemen who not so many years ago weighed 250 pounds, or weightlifters with trapezius muscles that ascend like mountains from their shoulders to their ears, or sprinters with quadriceps like steel cables. But the use of steroids—and other, more exotic substances, such as human growth hormone (hGH)—has spread to almost every sport, from major league baseball to college basketball to high school football. It is the dirty and universal secret of sports, amateur and pro, as the millennium draws near.
Though what follows focuses in considerable detail on Olympic sports, circumstantial evidence of performance-enhancing drug use from a wide variety of sports, pro and amateur, abounds. Even casual fans notice that NBA players sport biceps that a Kevin McHale or even a Moses Malone never dreamed of; that Ivy League colleges field football teams with linemen bigger than All-Pro linemen were a few years ago; and that it's no longer remarkable for veteran big league baseball players to show up at spring training having put on 20 pounds of solid muscle since the end of the previous season.
Most pro leagues don't test for performance-enhancing drugs. And those athletic governing bodies that do, strike fear in the hearts of few athletes. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) sanctioned exactly two positive drug tests at last summer's Atlanta Games out of a pool of 11,000 athletes, 2,000 of whom were tested for banned substances. No medals were forfeited. From those numbers—down from five positives at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and the alltime high of 12 positives at the '84 Games in Los Angeles—you might assume that the '96 Olympics were the cleanest since the beginning of full-scale drug testing at the '72 Games. Don't kid yourself.
Dozens of athletes, coaches, administrators and steroid traffickers interviewed by SI say that the Atlanta Olympics, like other Games of the last half century, was a carnival of sub-rosa experiments in the use of performance-enhancing drugs. And few of those interviewed were surprised that only two users were caught. "Athletes are a walking laboratory, and the Olympics have become a proving ground for scientists, chemists and unethical doctors," says Dr. Robert Voy, the director of drug testing for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) at the 1984 and '88 Games. "The testers know that the [drug] gurus are smarter than they are. They know how to get in under the radar."
No less an authority than Dr. Donald Catlin, director of the IOC-accredited drug-testing lab at UCLA, while noting that "I don't think everyone in Atlanta was doped," makes a telling admission: "The sophisticated athlete who wants to take drugs has switched to things we can't test for."