Thursday, September 8, 2011

Anabolic steroids and other PEDs: the other side of the coin by Jerry Brainum

It's hard to imagine any drugs that are more demonized than anabolic steroids.Their portrayal in the popular media in relation to athletic usage has led the public to think that steroids have no legitimate medical usage. That they are, in fact, just a way for cheating athletes to break the rules. A corollary to this type of thinking is that athletes actually enjoy using steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (PED), but nothing could be further from the truth.Athletes use them simply because other athletes use them to boost athletic performance. Using the drugs is just a way of staying in the game. Most physicians and scientists condemn the use of steroids and PEDS for anything other than medical usage.But there are lone voices in the wilderness that beg to differ with this prevailing attitude.
     Perhaps foremost among them is Norman Fost, M.D. Fost is a true Ivy league man, having obtained a bachelor's degree from Princeton; a Masters in public health from Harvard; and his medical degree from Yale Medical School.Fost is professor of pediatrics and bioethics, and also the director of the program in Medical Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has been named "one of the best doctors in America" by U.S News and World Report.Unlike his medical peers, Fost has taken a stand in defense of steroid and PED usage in sports. What follows are his comments about this topic, to which I will add my own opinions.
1) Steroids result in unfair competition: Fost notes that while steroids undoubtedly enhance athletic performance, his argument here is: so what? If athletic enhancement is unfair, then we should ban coaching and training, which also aid athletic enhancement. He cites the hypocrisy of the 1988 Olympic games, where sprinter Ben Johnson was pilloried after it was discovered that he had failed a drug test for the steroid, Winstrol-V. Janet Evans, an American swimmer at the games who was allowed to keep her gold medal, bragged about how her greasy swimsuit played a key role in her victory. Johnson slipped into obscurity after the games, while Evans remained popular.
2) Steroids are coercive: if your opponents use them, then you have to: Fost notes that no one in American sports is forced to use steroids, so there is no actual coercion. It's more of a high risk opportunity, he says.I would disagree with Dr.Fost on this point. Given equal genetic proclivity to sport excellence, if one athlete uses steroids, and the other doesn't, the drug user will always win. So in that sense, PEDs in sports are a bit coercive.
3) Steroids are life-threatening: Steroid use is often linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other disease.The problem here is the lack of cause and effect evidence. Even in cases where high dose steroid users died, it's often difficult to point to a definitive role played by steroids alone. More often, other confounding factors are present, such as various poor health habits, or use of more directly dangerous drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines.I've often written in my articles that from a bodybuilding perspective, diuretics are far more immediately dangerous compared to steroids. You can die from diuretic overuse in less than an hour. No one in history ever died that fast from steroid usage. If the decision to ban steroids from sport was based entirely on life threatening circumstances, then that would mandate the banning of sports such as boxing, race car driving, and mixed-martial arts.
4) Steroid are unnatural, and undermine the essence of sport: Fost notes that all sports are merely games invented by humans, with arbitrary rules that are constantly changing.Athletes have resorted to "unnatural" aids since time immemorial. Springy shoes, bamboo poles, greasy swimsuits or other special suits designed to reduce water drag. Even using such natural techniques as carbohydrate loading isn't really natural. Since training at high altitude is known to boost hemoglobin levels in the blood, which is similar to what blood doping does, shouldn't that also be banned?
5) Steroids undermine the integrity of records: The classic example here is Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, both of whom broke the baseball home run record while using steroids. Because of this, some say that their records should be recorded with an asterisk next to them.But Fost notes that there are other reasons why baseball records continue to fall. Fences are shorter;the pitching mound is lower;the balls themselves have more bounce, and so on. In additon, you can't get away from the fact that only McGwire and Bonds broke the records. Other players could have, and probably did use the same drugs as they did, so why did only those men break the records?
6) Fan will lose interest: The 1990 Mr.Olympia contest remains the only drug-tested year for that contest. Officials told me off the record that testing for steroids proved disastrous, since the physiques that year showed a significant drop in muscle mass and quality. The fear was that hard-core bodybuilding fans would lose interest if pro contests went "natural" with extensive drug testing. Hence, no drug testing. The widespread use of steroids and other drugs in bodybuilding is one of the reasons why bodybuilding was never in serious consideration for Olympic games participation, contrary to the frequent statements of Ben Weider.
     The bottom line is that Fost thinks that as adults, the decision to use steroids and other PEDs should be left up to the individual, not some self-serving paternalistic "governing body." Steroids are drugs, and they are not innocuous. Whether they harm health is based on such factors as time and dosage.Since their use in sports is so widespread anyway, it would probably be better to make them legal in sport, and carefully monitor athletes for side effects or any other problems related to the drugs.

©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

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