Defend Truth


Time to face reality about steroids?


Styli Charalambous is the CEO and co-founder of Daily Maverick, having joined the effort a few months before launch in 2009. Over the years, he has studied media models and news innovation efforts. He has also helped launch various projects and products within the Daily Maverick orbit.

Has the end of the Grantland Rice's romantic notion of not worrying about winning or losing, but ‘how you played the game’, meant we need to review whether steroids should be allowed in sport?

In 1995 a Chicago physician, Bob Goldman, asked 198 US Olympic-level athletes whether they would take a performance-enhancing drug if it guaranteed a winning performance and they were sure to get away with it. To nobody’s surprise, an overwhelming 98% responded positively.

However, the part of the poll that raised the most eyebrows was that more than half of those same athletes stated they would still take performance-enhancing drugs if it guaranteed winning performances for five years – even if it led to certain death.  A clear insight then into the psyche of the professional athlete: Wining is most definitely everything.

PEDs, or steroids as we’ve come to know them, have been part of sport for as long rewards, monetary or otherwise, have accompanied a victorious performance. Driven by the desire and pressure to succeed, sportsmen and women do not hesitate to find a training supplement that will give them the edge over the competition.

Despite the recent prevalence of rigorous drug testing, the list of athletes who’ve crossed that Rubicon includes the infamous likes of Ben Johnson, Tim Montgomery, Justin Gatlin and Marion Jones. For these athletes the prospect of gold and associated fame and fortune, was enticing enough to drink from the fountain of anabolic steroids.

Steroids are simply male hormones that form the building blocks of muscle mass. These hormones are the reason male physiques are inherently larger and stronger than those of women. And probably  also the reason why the East German women’s athletics team of the 1970s and 80s looked more like Kobus Wiese than Claudia Schiffer.

While occurring naturally in the human body, they can also be synthetically developed in a laboratory. Excessive use can lead to many side effects such as shrinking of the testes, liver and kidney damage and loss of sexual and vital energy. Not so much different to the side effects of training for the Iron Man competitions, then. But this begs the question, if the side effects of steroid use were eliminated, would we still want them to be illegal? 

To illustrate the façade of clean sports, we need only look at the record books. The year 1989 was a watershed one for athletics. It was this year that a marked increase in drug testing procedures were implemented in the sport. Prior to this, athletics was about the public’s entertainment preferences.

Unsurprisingly, 1989 resulted in a spate of world record holders all retiring from the “clean” sport of athletics. A quick look at the record books reveals some interesting facts. Almost 40% of the current world records of women’s athletics were achieved prior to 1989.

From Florence Griffith Joyner’s 100m and 200m records to the high jump and long jump, it seems impossible to think that in 20 years of progress in sports training and technology, these records have not been broken. Even Marion Jones, with her trainer-fed cocktail of steroids, could not break a record set by a woman running in something resembling a jester’s outfit. I’ll put my cock on this block and say what we’re all thinking: Those ladies had more drugs flowing through their veins than Pete Doherty on a Friday night.

But how did the public react to the levels of “achievement” and entertainment on show? The 1988 Seoul Olympics were among the most exciting games ever held. From badminton to sprinting, records fell like dominoes, and record TV audiences tuned in to watch. As humans, we like to watch amazing feats, we are enthralled by success and achievement and especially on the battlefields of sport, which play so heavily on our emotions.

Baseball had, until 2006, one of the most lenient policy’s on the use of PEDs. This may have had something to do with the recognition of the Major Baseball League’s increased ratings as home run records were being bettered and extended. The fact is spectacular, record-breaking performances put bums on seats which led to sponsors queuing up to offer their advertising dollars. 

Superstars such as Sammy Sosa, Alex “A Rod” Rodriguez and home-run record holder, Barry Bonds, have all been linked to the use of PEDs. Only following the Balco scandal of 2006, in which the lid was blown on illegal “undetectable” steroids marketed as “the Clear”, has the MLB association imposed game-time suspensions on PED users. They still do not impose any of the outright or lifetime bans that occur in most international sports.

Body building, the cradle of performance enhancing drugs, even goes so far as to hold two sets of competitions, one for “clean” competitors and one for “not so clean” competitors. No prizes for guessing which competition has the most entrants and biggest sponsors.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the “governator” of California, could almost single-handedly be credited with popularising the use of PEDs. The timing of his crossover from Mr Universe competitions to movie star in 1970 brought with it the envy of athletes yearning to achieve similar training results to Arnie’s. To this day, his bodybuilding competition, the Arnold Classic, is a “modified” competition that allows the use of steroids.

Now, assuming the unthinkable, that sports administrators would one day legalise PEDs, how would it actually change the face of sports? 

Apart from the obvious across-the-board performance improvements, one feels the playing fields would be levelled for the first time in a long time. Most sports are littered with athletes who continually manage to escape the short arm of the law. Through technology and other methods, they manage to outpace the detection measures of sporting codes. By legalising PEDs, we would no longer see certain sports stars “feigning” injury to prevent detection at the start of major tournaments, where the chance of random testing is much higher.

Additionally, the terrible side effects of PED use would drop significantly. Imagine the progress that could be made by the research and development divisions of Pfizer or Bauer versus that of a back-street Bulgarian scientist. To illustrate the startling reality of this, visit any schoolboy Easter rugby festival. Many traditional rugby playing schools now have 100kg weight limits on forwards playing 1st team rugby and, with the absence of regular testing, one can imagine how enticing it must be for these boys to use PEDs. And suffer the side-effects. Legalisation would go some way toward eliminating some of these risks.
In a local context, the use of PEDs may even help level the playing fields in a sport such as rugby, at junior levels where young black South Africans are bullied out of the sport by larger kids of Dutch descent. Who would want to continue playing a sport when you’re constantly being pummelled by a Grade 5 kid with a five o’clock shadow? With quotas to fill and a lack of progress being made by transformation policies, maybe PEDs would provide the platform for aspiring rugby players of colour to stand toe-to-toe with other boys. New Zealand incidentally switched from age-group junior rugby to weight group, so little white kids would continue playing the game.

So we’ve established that professional sportsmen and women would do just about anything to win – a mindset required to assure a rise to the top of a chosen field. So why not let the public decide which form of sport they’d prefer to watch? A modified “super” event or grainy version where we fool ourselves that all athletes perform without the use of performance enhancing drugs. 

Perhaps it’s time we faced the steroid reality?


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