SI Vault
Edited by Jerry Kirshenbaum
November 12, 1979
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November 12, 1979


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Four days after Grete Waitz' stunning performance in the New York Marathon, the International Amateur Athletic Federation banned seven women—three Romanians, two Bulgarians and two Soviets—from track and field competition for life for taking anabolic steroids. The contrast could scarcely be more pronounced. Waitz, who has stressed that she has never used steroids, pared nearly five minutes off her world record to win in 2:27:33, prompting Dr. Ken Foreman, a Seattle exercise physiologist who will be the U.S. women's track coach at the 1980 Olympics, to venture that with their ideal build for endurance running, "In the future I think women will be beating men in marathon races." Other experts agree that women are only beginning to tap their athletic potential.

The IAAF's action, however, comes as a reminder that instead of fulfilling that potential, some women are only too willing to blur the distinction between themselves and men by ingesting steroids, synthetic derivatives of the male hormone testosterone, which tend to give women greater muscle definition and other masculine characteristics. Those punished were a long jumper, a hurdler, two discus throwers and three middle-distance runners: Bulgaria's Totka Petrova, the World Cup champion in the 1,500; Romania's Natalia Marasescu, the world-record holder in the mile; and Ileana Silai, the world's third-ranked 1,500 runner behind Petrova and Marasescu.

At a time of growing concern over the use of drugs in sports, steroids are the most prevalent and worrisome of all. Prescribed in therapeutic doses, usually 5 mg a day, they are used to treat post-surgical patients and to combat pituitary dwarfism. In the 1960s steroids gained favor among body builders, wrestlers, weight lifters, football players and weight-event athletes who felt that massive dosages, up to 500 mg a day, would increase their muscle bulk, weight and strength. Now even athletes with slight builds, such as middle-distance runners, believe steroids provide explosive power for sprinting at the end of races.

This may be the case, but in massive doses, steroids almost certainly cause liver damage in both sexes and, among men, shrinkage of the genitals and impotency. In women, steroids can produce a deepened voice, growth of facial and chest hair, clitoral enlargement, menstrual irregularities and impairment of reproductive capacity. Especially alarming in younger athletes is the possibility of premature bone ossification that can stunt growth. Added to the physical hazards is the ethical question of chemical manipulation of an athlete's body.

Detection techniques are fairly new, tests having been first conducted at the 1976 Olympics. Since then international federations have been testing athletes at major competitions, and the IAAF is particularly vigilant. In general, however, policing is limited by high cost and time constraints. Also, by going off steroids a few weeks before competing, athletes can usually avoid detection while still retaining what they believe to be the drug's benefits. Apparently owing to miscalculation, a number of them have nevertheless been caught, a clear majority being Eastern Europeans.

U.S. athletes are hardly innocent bystanders. Two of the six weight lifters disqualified at the Montreal games were Americans. One reason the U.S. has been spared major scandal is that little testing has been done here. But trackmen in Southern California make regular runs to Mexico, where the drug is sold over the counter. Speaking strictly of male athletes, Al Cantello, the Naval Academy track coach, says, "Every top-flight trackman in the U.S. takes steroids." Chuck DeBus, coach of the 1979 national AAU and AIAW championship track and field teams, estimates that 70% of all top-ranked U.S. track athletes, men and women, use steroids. Noting the gap between American and Eastern European women in track events, DeBus says, "I don't mean this to sound like sour grapes, but it's tough to beat them with their steroids.... In the Communist countries they are being used scientifically."

One knowledgeable U.S. observer, David Costill, exercise physiologist at Ball State University, says, "It's our American anti-Communist mentality to blame everything on the governments of those countries, but their officials are as much against steroids as anybody. What happens is, a coach or an athlete wants to try it and see if he can succeed."

Indeed, last week a Soviet sports official said, "What can we do? Steroids are freely available at our pharmacies, on prescription, which is not difficult for a trainer or athlete to obtain."

As disturbing as the prospect may be, what is needed is the authority to conduct spot checks of athletes in training. In the absence of routine international spot checks, U.S. sports governing bodies should consider introducing their own testing procedures, while at the same time taking steps to provide alternatives to drugs.

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