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The Steroid Predicament
Terry Todd
August 01, 1983
In spite of evidence that anabolic steroids can undermine one's health, the use of these drugs is widespread among athletes, who will risk their physical well-being for the promise of stronger performance
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August 01, 1983

The Steroid Predicament

In spite of evidence that anabolic steroids can undermine one's health, the use of these drugs is widespread among athletes, who will risk their physical well-being for the promise of stronger performance

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Back home, Ziegler learned from the medical literature that testosterone was first isolated in 1935 and that since then contraindications had accumulated as more and more animal and human studies were done. Though thus informed of some of the dangers inherent in the use of testosterone, Ziegler nonetheless decided to have a peek into Pandora's box. Conducting very limited case studies on several people, including himself, he found that although strength levels increased, so did the size of the prostate gland.

"Everyone got more 'studdy,' " he says. "The side effects were strong. Finally, in the late '50s, we got Dianabol, and it was about then that I read of the work that had been done in Germany on isometric contraction. It was in 1960 that I decided to try the steroids and the isometric contractions on a few of the top U.S. lifters, but I wish to God now I'd never done it. I'd like to go back and take that whole chapter out of my life.

"Steroids were such a big secret at first, and that added to the hunger the lifters and football players had to get hold of them. I honestly believe that if I'd told people back then that rat manure would make them strong, they'd have eaten rat manure. What I failed to realize until it was too late was that most of the lifters had such obsessive personalities. To them, if two tablets were good, four would be better."

The 35-year-old lifter who had been the first in my circle of acquaintances to use steroids recalls how he was introduced to them. "I first met Ziegler at the training camp for the Rome Olympics in 1960," he says, "and later that fall he invited me to come to his house in Maryland for a weekend. We spent several days talking about his ideas on isometric contraction and how they could be used to build strength in the Olympic lifts. He told me that two York lifters were already using a form of this training. He was such a great salesman that by the time the weekend was over I was ready to try it. He never said a thing about steroids then, but a week or so after I got home I got a letter from him and a bottle of pills. He told me they would help make sure I got the full nutritional value out of the food I ate. I was naive, I guess, but I'd never heard of Dianabol or steroids. I never questioned him, and from time to time I'd get a fresh supply. I was making great gains, and I thought the routine was doing it. In retrospect, though, I'm sure a lot of it was the pills."

In a number of predictable ways, the news of steroids spread. The combination of a radically different exercise routine, the startling progress being made by a small number of elite lifters, a wizardly physician and an evangelical promoter with access to a national fitness magazine produced a climate of rising expectations in which men of might began a big arms race, fueled by an ever expanding array of pharmaceuticals. This isn't to say that any one of these four components was individually responsible for the increased use of drugs in sport—only that these components happened to exist at the same time and to interact in such a way as to produce the critical mass necessary for the strength-building drug scene to explode. Ziegler and Hoffman are no longer really active in the game, the pace-setting lifters have all long since retired, and isometric contraction has acquired a patina similar to that of the bunny hop and the Hula-Hoop, yet the many and various ergogenic kin of Dianabol are thriving as never before.

In the last two decades steroid use has spread so far that it now causes only mild surprise when the athlete found guilty of having taken such drugs turns out to be a female middle-distance runner rather than a 300-pound male weightlifter. A number of cyclists in the just completed Tour de France tested positive for steroids and were assessed time penalties. Among them was 1980 Tour winner Joop Zoetemelk of The Netherlands, whose penalty for use of the drug barred any hope of victory this time. But in the halcyon days of the early '60s, there were no women and only a few men who took steroids. And I was among them. Mea gulpa. My training partners, of course, were already taking them, and they urged me to begin immediately. But I was leery. Before I indulged, I at least saw an internist and took what precautions I knew to take. As I wrote in 1977, "I wanted to win, all right, and I wanted to win bad, but I wasn't stone crazy."

Just stone blind, at least to the extent of being unable to connect such terms as "enlarged prostate" and "liver toxicity"—phrases I encountered in the medical literature on steroids—to my own life. One thing often overlooked in discussions of the importance of educating young athletes about the potentially harmful side effects of steroids is that most young athletes, because of the effect their age and vigor have on their judgment, are almost constitutionally unable to hear such warnings. Reading Thanatopsis at 15 is, after all, an altogether different thing from reading it at 50.

So I took Dianabol intermittently from 1963 through early 1967, at which time I retired from competition. My best guess is that during that period I took approximately 1,200 pills, which would be 6,000 milligrams. When I tell young athletes these days of my dosage levels they look at me as if I were describing how margarine used to look during the Second World War, before the yellow coloring was added. Exactly how high the levels have gone is a matter of conjecture, but I have both testimony and published reports indicating that on occasion athletes have taken in less than two weeks the 6,000 milligrams that I, weighing more than 300 pounds, took in four years.

Looking back, I feel fortunate to have taken so few. Had the recommended dose been 10 times greater, I might well have taken it. In 1967 a doctor polled more than a hundred runners, asking them if they would take a certain drug knowing that, although it could make them Olympic champions, it could kill them in a year. More than half of the athletes responded affirmatively. O tempora, O mores, oh hell.

All of which is a way of saying that the various medical and sporting bodies concerned with athletics shouldn't be overly optimistic about the prospects of influencing the behavior of athletes by constantly stressing the capacity steroids have to produce unpleasant side effects.

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