Steroids in America: The Real Dope

Culture of enhancement extends far beyond sports

Posted: Tuesday March 11, 2008 11:02AM; Updated: Tuesday March 11, 2008 1:46PM
Congress called in leaders of the major sports leagues after allegations arose about Bonds, Clemens and scores of others.
Congress called in leaders of the major sports leagues after allegations arose about Bonds, Clemens and scores of others.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Steroids In America
Part I: The Present
Part II: The Past
Part III: The Future
Additional Coverage

By Jack McCallum

Athletes who take performance-improving drugs make all the headlines. But the culture of personal physical enhancement has pushed the use of steroids and HGH everywhere -- from Hollywood to the music industry to your next-door neighbor who doesn't want to grow old. Don't blame only the jocks.

We are a juiced nation.

We are a nation on dope.

We are a nation looking for enhancement, a way to age gracefully, perform better and longer, and, at the outer edge, vanquish what was once considered that alltime undefeated opponent known as aging. We do that by Botoxing our wrinkles, lifting our faces, reconstructing our noses, despidering our veins, tucking our tummies, augmenting our breasts and taking a little pill to make sure we're ready when, you know, the right time presents itself. We also do it by injecting human growth hormone (HGH) and testosterone, America's new golden pharmaceutical couple.

Numbers are hard to come by because much of the flow of these drugs is illegal, but Dr. Mark Gordon, one of 20,000 members of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, cites a 2004 study that found that more than $1 billion was spent annually on legal HGH. "And it's safe to assume it's gone up in the last four years," Gordon says. The Mayo Clinic reports that 2.4 million testosterone prescriptions were filled by U.S. pharmacies in 2004, more than twice the number filled in 2000. Mayo also estimates that three million people in the U.S. use anabolic steroids, the synthetic versions of testosterone that are illegal when they are used for nonmedical reasons such as building an impressive physique and increasing endurance for training. John Romano, senior editor at Muscular Development, the top seller among the dozens of magazines that cover powerlifting and bodybuilding, estimates that 15 million Americans use performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

Yet to judge by the blanket coverage given the bizarre Roger Clemens--Brian McNamee pas de deux; Congress's incessant (and in many cases politically motivated) effort to ferret out drug cheats among athletes; the table-pounding vows of various politicians to get drugs out of sports!; and the never-ending BALCO-Barry saga, one might conclude that PEDs are the exclusive province of professional athletes. When George Bush mentioned steroids in his January 2004 State of the Union speech, he set the societal agenda. "The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous," thundered the President. "It sends the wrong message that there are shortcuts to accomplishment and that performance is more important than character. So tonight I call on team owners, union representatives, coaches and players to take the lead, to send the right signal, to get tough and to get rid of steroids now." Massive applause followed.

O.K., performance-enhancing drugs . . . bad. Athletes who use them . . . bad. Influencing kids to use them . . . bad. On to the next problem.

That politicians have locked in on sports is understandable at one level (beyond the obvious fact that a nationally televised Clemens hearing will draw more attention than, say, an antitrust debate on C-Span). Athletic achievement is made to be measured and is available for instant analysis when performances improve, even incrementally. Athletes stand on pedestals, and pedestals are made to be toppled. A kind of moral ceiling hangs over sports, as degraded as that ceiling might've become in the 3,000 years since a bunch of Greeks began throwing javelins and racing chariots. Play by the rules. Play fair. Level playing field.

But what's happened is that the subject of PEDs has been conveniently compressed and poured into a small airtight bottle at which politicians and society at large can throw stones. We did roughly the same thing with cocaine in the '80s, when you might've thought that baseball players and an unfortunate 22-year-old named Len Bias were the only ones snorting the drug, along with a godless Hollywood elite, of course.

The truth is, sports do not define the culture -- they reflect it. Society's image of the ideal body is shaped largely by forces outside the chalked lines. And the belief that life can be improved, even extended, by drugs comes not from sports but from the burgeoning field known as antiaging medicine.