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ONCE UPON a time, elite athletes who took extreme doses of anabolic steroids were sure that the drugs helped them jump higher, run faster, grow stronger. But these notions had never been verified in a lab. So in 1975 a British physiology professor at the University of Leeds, G. Romaine Hervey, set up an experiment to determine whether high doses of steroids truly boosted athletic performance or just gave users a psychological edge. "We knew young men who lifted weights felt that anabolic steroids helped them lift more, but we really didn't know [if they did]," says Hervey, now 83. "And since steroids did seem to make them bigger, we wanted to see whether that was normal muscle or water or something else." ¶ It was a worthy inquiry, but Hervey was undone by one monumental oversight: He allowed 25-year-old Tony Fitton to observe the study. An industrial chemist and a top British powerlifter, Fitton watched with delight as the 11 subjects, gathered in a hotel room near campus, received boxes of the anabolic steroid Dianabol—a drug he had been regularly using for three years. The instant Hervey left the room, Fitton took over. "Lads, the dosages are a bit high," he said of Hervey's regimen of 20 five-milligram tablets a day for six weeks. "If you feel more inclined to taking just two tablets a day, I'll buy [the rest] off you." As Fitton recalls, almost everyone in the room accepted his offer. Naturally, the subjects did not show appreciable strength gains at the end of the study. Fitton, meanwhile, had procured a cache of Dbol that he could deal or dole out to his lifting buddies.
Unaware that his experiment had been sabotaged, Hervey wrote in the influential medical journal The Lancet, "The results did not support the belief that anabolic steroids increase strength and performance." Although some lower-dosage studies showed contradictory results, Hervey's high-dosage trial held sway in the British and American sports medicine communities. In 1976 a former president of the American College of Sports Medicine, Dr. Allan J. Ryan, called steroids "fool's gold." A year later, another former ACSM president, Dr. David Lamb, wrote that the "administration of anabolic-androgenic steroids ... does not of itself bring about any significant improvements in strength, aerobic endurance, lean body mass, or body weight." The Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association echoed that skepticism for a decade. As recently as 2006 the entry for Anadrol-50 in the Physicians' Desk Reference, the bible for pharmaceuticals, had this warning: "Anabolic steroids have not been shown to enhance athletic ability."
But the runners and lifters ingesting the drugs knew better. Dianabol, the first oral anabolic steroid, hit the pharmacies in the 1950s and, along with other anabolics, quickly found favor among some high-level athletes. "They would pin those warnings to their wall and laugh at them," recalls Charles Yesalis, a professor emeritus at Penn State and one of the country's foremost experts on steroids. "They had been seeking counsel and hearing silliness. Denying that these drugs worked is still to some extent damaging [the medical community's] credibility today."
Hervey's botched study had another far-reaching repercussion: It launched Fitton's two-decade career as a steroid entrepreneur. "I was off to a life of crime," he says now, a smile stealing across his face. By the early 1980s he had moved to the U.S. and was serving thousands of athletes: Olympians, top NFL draft picks, professional wrestlers, cops he'd met through lifting competitions and garden-variety gym rats. As one federal prosecutor said of Fitton in '85, "He may have been the biggest [steroid] dealer in the world."
Now a genial, paunchy 58-year-old raconteur who lives off his savings in Rochdale, England, Fitton remains unapologetic. "Life isn't fair," he says flatly, "so why should sports be fair?"
THE SAGA of the steroid godfather begins in Rochdale, a working-class town in the moors outside Manchester. A silo-shaped teenager with a thatch of red hair, Fitton grew devoted to weightlifting, his gym an abandoned mill with broken windows that granted entry to pigeons as well as a blanket of fog so thick it often shrouded the barbells. In the late 1960s and early '70s, British schoolchildren were given unlimited free milk. By staying in high school, Fitton realized, he could rack up 10 pints of milk a day (free!) and add all that protein mass. Only after turning 20 did he finally graduate.
Fitton went to a teacher training college in Liverpool to become a biology instructor but dropped out after two years and found work back in Rochdale at a foundry lab testing the purity of various metals. There he developed some of the chemistry skills that would help inform his new interest in performance-enhancing substances. Fitton was off on a grand experiment, the kind he grew to love, tinkering with his training and drug regimens to see just how much power he could squeeze out of every limb. In his early 20s he was appointed powerlifting head of the British Amateur Weightlifting Association and in '76 briefly held a world record in the 242-pound class when he squatted 815 pounds. When his marriage crumbled in the late spring of '75, the British tabloid The Daily Mirror ran a story headlined, "Wife Gives Champ the Big Heave." In the article Fitton said, "I have become completely devoted to powerlifting, and my only interest in life is lifting more than I did yesterday."
The following year Fitton placed third at the World Powerlifting Championships in York, Pa., and in 1978 he moved to the country at the forefront of powerlifting—and Dianabol use. "I wanted to learn from [the Americans], beat them and become world champion," he says. Fitton landed in Sidney, Ohio, and went to work for Larry Pacifico, a top lifter and head trainer at a dozen gyms riding the burgeoning fitness craze. Pacifico tasked Fitton with selling gym memberships and devising training regimens.
Salesmanship, however, bored Fitton, who got his reprieve less than two years later. Terry Todd, a prominent lifter who also wrote on the subject (and a former contributor to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED), had founded the National Strength Research Center on the campus of Auburn. An acquaintance of Todd's from weightlifting circles, Fitton received a faculty position at the center that he says consisted of little more than helping Bill Kazmaier, a sort of strongman-in-residence, with training. "I didn't even have a bloody typewriter," Fitton says. Kazmaier, who acknowledged using steroids to SI in 1999, was the first man to bench-press more than 660 pounds in competition and later worked as commentator for ESPN's World's Strongest Man broadcasts.
Fitton's passion for lifting competitively had long since cooled, but his fascination with steroids had grown. He read books and research papers late into the night, and armed himself not only with pharmacological reference books from Italy and Mexico but veterinary medical texts as well. He welcomed the chance to experiment, and found no shortage of willing subjects in the lifting community. When, for instance, he read that users of the blood pressure medication minoxidil reported that their eyebrows would grow together, Fitton crushed some up, dissolved it and rubbed it on a buddy's bald head. Sure enough, hair sprouted. (Today minoxidil is the active ingredient in Rogaine and other anti-hair-loss drugs, a multibillion-dollar business.) "I liked figuring stuff like that out," says Fitton.