Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bigger, Stronger, Faster - Steroids in America

[Body by Anabolics, Growth Hormone, Insulin, Etc]

I've written before on drugs in sports -- essentially I'm a libertarian in this realm, favoring a complete decriminalization of steroid use and doctor-supervised sanctioning of use by athletes.

A new movie - Bigger, Stronger, Faster - takes a somewhat ambivalent look at the use of steroids by athletes, which is completely understandable given the climate of condemnation in this country. The movie has a 100% rating at Rotten Tomatoes after 29 reviews.
Synopsis: In America, we define ourselves in the superlative: we are the biggest, strongest, fastest country in the world. Is it any wonder that so many of our athletes take performance-enhancing drugs? Director Christopher Bell explores America’s win-at-all-cost philosophy by examining the way his two brothers became members of the steroid subculture in an effort to realize their American dream. Ingeniously beginning the film by harkening back to the mentality of the 1980s, where the heroes were Rambo, Conan, and Hulk Hogan, Bell recounts how these role models led him and his brothers into powerlifting and dreams of becoming all-star wrestlers. Those dreams were soon shattered by the realization that success in those fields required the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Bell uses his personal story as an entree into analyzing the bigger issues that surround these drugs: ethics in sports; the health ramifications, both physical and psychological; as well as the mentality that fuels it all. Bigger, Stronger, Faster* combines crisp editing of hilarious archival footage with priceless family revelations, as well as interviews with congressmen, professional athletes, medical experts, and everyday gym rats. The power of the film is the way Bell stays away from preconceptions and stereotypes and digs deeper to find the truth and concoct a fascinating, humorous, and poignant profile of one of the side effects of being American. --© Sundance Film Festival
Bigger, Stronger, Faster - Reviewed in The Chicago Tribune
A 2002 trip to the Dominican Republic should have left me with a sense of guilt over the squalid conditions in San Pedro de Macoris, Sammy Sosa's hometown.

Instead I was left with skepticism: No way Sosa, whom I had been covering as the Cubs' beat writer, could have plumped to 230 pounds au naturel. Every other native Dominican was built like a marathoner.

Then I asked myself: If going on a "juice" diet was Sosa's only way off this island, could I blame him? A terrific new documentary called "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" asks similar questions. While it's easy for politicians to brand steroids as the devil's potion, the film presents their use as a moral tightrope, perhaps not that different than the use of legal stimulants, Viagra, beta blockers, altitude chambers, cortisone shots, even Lasik eye surgery.

"So it's OK to enhance your performance if you're a pilot, porn star, a musician or a student," director/writer Christopher Bell explains, "but if your job is to play professional baseball, somehow that makes you a cheater."

Bell grew up in the '80s, a self-described "fat, pale kid from Poughkeepsie" who idolized Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Bell is crushed to learn that all three are frauds, having injected their way to fame, riches and (for Schwarzenegger) a path to the governor's mansion of California.

But Bell cannot demonize steroid use, in part because of a family secret. Bell's older brother, nicknamed "Mad Dog," began taking steroids while playing football at the University of Cincinnati. His younger sibling, nicknamed "Smelly," pledges to quit after winning a competition with a 705-pound bench-press.

Bell confronts Smelly, labeling him a cheater. But he also sympathizes with him, explaining, "There is a clash in America between doing the right thing and being the best."
Two other views:

Bigger, Stronger, Faster* left me convinced that the steroid scandals will abate as the drugs are reluctantly accepted as inevitable products of a continuing revolution in biotechnology.
~Stephen Holden, New York Times

A foreboding look at our conception of the human being: as a mechanism that can be sculpted, doped, enhanced, and perfected because, well, because we all want to be powerful and attractive.
~ Brett McCracken, Christianity Today

There is a real disconnect here between doping for sports (physiological enhancement) and the rest of our culture. My guess is that people who wouldn't think twice about getting a little "work done," referring to plastic surgery, would be totally opposed to athletes using growth hormone to speed healing of injuries or general recovery, or to athletes using testosterone to build a little more muscle to make themselves more competitive,

I'd bet these same people would have no issue with taking Prozac for depression or giving their kids Ritalin for ADD. I'll bet some of them have tattoos, or pierced ears, or permanent eye-liner. At what point is body (and brain) modification alright, and at what point is it a crime?

There's absolutely no reason for anabolic steroids to be illegal, other than politics. The drugs were legal until the early 1980s. You can still go into pharmacies in many countries and buy steroids over the counter.

With proper supervision, the health risks are minimal. Clearly, those who do not have fully developed hormonal systems shouldn't be using these drugs (that means kids). But proper control, regulations, and availability would take the drugs off the black market and make them much safer (thus also removing a whole line of work for criminals).

The reality of steroid use in America is much different than you might think:
Studies in the United States have shown anabolic steroid users tend to be mostly middle-class heterosexual men with a median age of about 25 who are noncompetitive bodybuilders and non-athletes and use the drugs for cosmetic purposes.[68] Another study found that non-medical use of AAS among college students was at or less than 1%.[69] According to a recent survey, 78.4% of steroid users were noncompetitive bodybuilders and non-athletes while about 13% reported unsafe injection practices such as reusing needles, sharing needles, and sharing multidose vials,[70] though a 2007 study found that sharing of needles was extremely uncommon among individuals using anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes, less than 1%.[71] Anabolic steroid users often are stereotyped as uneducated "muscle heads" by popular media and culture; however, a 1998 study on steroid users showed them to be the most educated drug users out of all users of controlled substances.[72] Another 2007 study found that 74% of non-medical anabolic steroid users had secondary college degrees and more had completed college and less had failed to complete high school than is expected from the general populace.[71] The same study found that individuals using Anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes had a higher employment rate and a higher household income than the general population.[71] Anabolic steroid users also tend to research the drugs they are taking more than any other group of users of controlled substances.
The real problem here is that the drugs are illegal and stigmatized, so even though the users do a great deal of research, they don't tell their primary care physicians about their use:
Moreover, anabolic steroid users tend to be disillusioned by the portrayal of anabolic steroids as deadly in the media and in politics.[73] According to one study, AAS users also distrust their physicians and in the sample 56% had not disclosed their AAS use to their physicians.[74] Another 2007 study had similar findings, showing that while 66% of individuals using anabolic steroids for non-medical purposes were willing to seek medical supervision for their steroid use, 58% lacked trust in their physicians, 92% felt that the medical communities knowledge of non-medical anabolic steroid use was lacking and 99% felt that the public has an exaggerated view of the side effects of anabolic steroid use.[71]
So what is to be done?

Legalize the drugs for prescription use. Allow athletes to use the drugs under a doctor's supervision. Crack down on internet sales that target minors -- in this case under the age of 21.

The only other solution is to completely change our culture so that success, winning, strength and speed, and physical attractiveness are not so highly valued that people are willing to go to illegal means to achieve those things. Good luck with that.

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