The World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) “2008 Prohibited List” states clearly: “Anabolic agents are prohibited.” The list prohibits 47 exogenous anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS), 21 endogenous AAS, and five other anabolic agents. Steroid use in any sport governed by WADA’s code is subject to a two-year suspension the first time and lifetime suspension the second time. According to WADA, the code preserves “what is intrinsically valuable about sport . . . The intrinsic value is often referred to as ‘the spirit of sport’: it is the essence of Olympism: it is how we play true. . . . Doping is fundamentally contrary to the spirit of sport.”
Following the Canadian government’s inquiry into the use of drugs in sports, Chief Justice Charles Dubin articulated similar reasons for banning AAS. The use of banned drugs is cheating, Dubin maintained. Drugs threaten “the essential integrity of sport” and destroy “its very objectives.” Drugs “erode the ethical and moral values of the athletes who use them, endangering their mental and physical welfare while demoralizing the entire sport community.”
Although the primary objection to AAS in sports is ethical, concerns over their physiological impact have also influenced the ban. First synthesized in 1935, it was then noted that, despite the initial, positive response by some scientists, the conservative medical establishment was wary of a synthetic hormone that might “turn sexual weaklings into wolves and octogenarians into sexual athletes.” The concern today is the negative side effects from AAS, even though almost all are reversible in postpuberty males (and knowingly accepted by females). Nevertheless, sports leaders have used the potential negative side effects as a deterrent to AAS use and grounds for their ban.
Two further sentiments underlie the AAS ban in sports, although they are rarely noted. The first concerns the symbolic power and significance of sports and the association of steroids with certain reprehensible events in sports or social history. The second is a fear of the unrestricted, scientifically assisted pursuit of the outer limits of athletic performance. Increased musculature and steroids’ performance-enhancing attributes cause concern about where the use of unrestricted science, technology, and pharmacology might ultimately lead.
II. Key Events
The moral arguments against AAS and sports’ symbolic importance stem from Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s efforts to create the modern Olympic Games as a unique moral and educational program. Feeling that late 19th-century Europe was falling into spiritual decline, Coubertin wanted to reestablish its traditional values through a farreaching, innovative, educational project. His plan grew out of the philosophy of the “muscular Christian” and the spirituality of the ancient games. Character, Coubertin maintained, “is not formed by the mind, it is formed above all by the body.” Sports, as it was practiced in the British public schools, could revitalize the moral and spiritual fiber of Europe’s youth.
Coubertin’s image was inspiring. “The athlete enjoys his effort,” Coubertin wrote (2000 552). “He likes the constraint that he imposes on his muscles and nerves, through which he comes close to victory even if he does not manage to achieve it. This enjoyment remains internal. . . , Imagine if it were to expand outward, becoming intertwined with the joy of nature and the flights of art. Picture it radiant with sunlight, exalted by music, framed in the architecture of porticoes.” This was “the glittering dream of ancient Olympism” that “dominated ancient Greece for centuries.”
Coubertin’s project would create “an aristocracy, an elite”—“a knighthood” of “brothers- in-arms.” Chivalry would characterize the Games—“the idea of competition, of effort opposing effort for the love of effort itself, of courteous yet violent struggle, is superimposed on the notion of mutual assistance” (Coubertin 2000, 581). Chivalrous brothers-in-arms, bonding in the cauldron of competition, would forge Europe’s new moral elite.
Winning was irrelevant to Coubertin; character development in the struggle to win a fair, man-to-man contest (the gender is intentional) against a respected opponent, within a chivalric code of conduct was everything. Performance enhancement of any type—even physical training—was completely foreign to the ethos of Olympism. The true “essence of sport” was far loftier than crass, competitive sports; it centered on the character development upper-class youths gained on the playing fields of Rugby, Eton, and elsewhere in civilized Europe.
One cannot emphasize enough how this idealized image serves as the key reference point for AAS policies at the present time.
Symbolism was central to the modern Olympic Games from their inception. To achieve the appropriate solemnity, Coubertin launched his project “under the venerable roof of the Sorbonne [where] the words ‘Olympic Games’ would resound more impressively and persuasively” (cited in Beamish and Ritchie 2006, 32). It was, however, the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany and the long shadow of World War II that demonstrated the Games’ symbolic power.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels was a master at manipulating information and emotions for political gain. The Nazis frequently used imposing, emotive, Wagnerian-styled gesamtkunstwerke—total works of art—in enormous venues such as sports stadiums, to blend music, choreography, costume, and neoclassical architecture into captivating, exhilarating, and emotionally draining experiences. Knowing the power that well-crafted propaganda had on the hearts and minds of the masses, the 1936 Games let Goebbels use the Promethean symbolic power of the Olympics to project the commanding presence of Nazi Germany across Europe.
The Games’ marquee icon—the chiseled, muscular, racially pure Aryan, crowned with a victor’s olive wreath, rising above the goddess of victory atop the Brandenburg Gate—embodied the Nazi’s quest for world domination. The image soon included the cold-blooded brutality of German troops as they conquered Europe and marched on to Moscow.
In the post–World War II period, amid the ashes of destruction and defeat, rumors that Hitler’s Secret Service had taken steroids while perpetrating the Holocaust and destroying Eastern Europe were added to the image of Nazi barbarism. The 1936 Games linked steroids, ruthless aggression, moral depravity, and totalitarianism into one stark, chilling entity.
Admiring the Nazis’ use of the Games to project their power, the Soviet Union joined the Olympic movement for similar ends. At the 1952 Games—the first post–World War II confrontation between the superpowers—Soviet success quickly dispelled any notion of U.S. superiority.
Confirming at the 1954 world weightlifting championships that the Soviets had used testosterone to enhance performance in world competitions, U.S. physician John Ziegler developed methandieone, or Dianabol, to level the playing field. Dianabol quickly spread from weightlifters to the throwers in track and field and on to other strength-based sports. By the early 1960s, steroids were commonplace in world-class sports, and the unfettered use of science to win Olympic gold would increasingly dominate nations’ and athletes’ approach to sports after 1954.
From the outset—and enshrined in the Olympic Charter in 1962—the Modern Games were restricted to amateur athletes. The type of competitor that Coubertin and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wanted was the turn-of-the-20th-century British amateur. Only the well-educated, cultured, physically active, male aristocrat had the appropriate appreciation of sports to realize Coubertin’s goals. Well before 1952, however, the IOC had little control over the athletes who competed, and it failed miserably in achieving Coubertin’s educational objectives. Nevertheless, the IOC—especially Avery Brundage (president from 1952 to 1972)—struggled to maintain the Games’ integrity. The Olympics, Brundage claimed, “coming to us from antiquity, contributed to and strengthened by the noblest aspirations of great men of each generation, embrace the highest moral laws. . . . No philosophy, no religion,” he maintained, “preaches loftier sentiments.” But the social pressures outside the movement quickly overwhelmed those lofty claims.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Cold War politics, expanding consumerism, and the growth of television with its vast commercial resources and thirst for targeted audiences increasingly pressured the IOC to open the Games to the world’s best athletes. Furthermore, developments in sports science encouraged athletes to devote longer periods of their lives to the pursuit of Olympic gold and financial reward—Olympic athletes became increasingly professional. By 1970, pressure grew to replace the amateur rule with a new eligibility code. The 1971 code remained restrictive, but a 1974 revision opened the Games to the best athletes money could buy and governments and sports scientists could produce.
Danish cyclist Knud Jensen’s death at the 1960 Olympics, allegedly from amphetamine use, symbolized the value athletes placed on victory. The IOC established a medical committee in 1961 to recommend how to prevent or control drug use by athletes. The 1964 recommendations included athlete testing, signed athlete statements confirming they were drug-free, and heavy sanctions. Rule 28, added to the charter in 1967, prohibited any “alien or unnatural substances” that created an unfair advantage; although banned in 1967, the IOC did not test for AAS until 1976.
The Nazis and Soviets had used the Games to occupy center stage internationally and symbolically project their importance to the world. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) developed similar aspirations—especially after Munich was awarded the 1972 Games. The decision to hold the Olympics on the soil of the GDR’s most bitter rival—the Federal Republic of Germany—was pivotal in the history of AAS use by world-class athletes. The GDR initiated “State-Plan 14.25”—an extensive, high-level, classified, laboratory research program involving substantial state resources—to develop a scientifically based program of steroid use. By the 1976 Olympics, AAS were fully integrated into the GDR’s high-performance sports system as a matter of state policy.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Games increasingly centered on the all-out pursuit of victory. For nations, Olympic gold signified strength, power, and international supremacy; for athletes, it meant wealth and celebrity.
Ben Johnson crushed Carl Lewis and shattered the 100-meter world record in the 1988 Games’ premier event, but his positive test for stanozolol created a major crisis. In short order, Sports Illustrated ran articles on steroids in sports, and the Canadian government and the U.S. House of Representatives began investigations into AAS use in sports. The entire credibility of the Olympic movement was at stake—was the IOC serious about steroids and the purity of the Games? Steroid use, it was clearly evident, was widespread.
In March 1998, French customs officials found erythropoietin (EPO) in the TVM cycling team’s van, and criminal charges followed. Then in July, mere days before the Tour de France began, the Festina team was implicated in the EPO scandal. But it was IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch’s comments that shocked the world. Drugs could damage an athlete’s health as well as artificially improve performance, Samaranch observed. If it only improves performance, he continued, it did not matter: “Anything that doesn’t adversely affect the health of the athlete, isn’t doping.” Potentially implicating the IOC in whitewashing AAS use, Samaranch’s comments forced the IOC to establish an independent body to oversee drug testing from then on.
Created in 1999, WADA hosted a world conference on drug use that led to its June 2002 draft of the World Anti-Doping Code. A subsequent draft in October led to unanimous adoption of version 3.0 in March 2003 at the second world conference. Despite WADA’s efforts, steroid use did not stop; AAS users simply found ways to avoid detection. In July 2003, track coach Trevor Graham gave the American Anti- Doping Agency a syringe containing the designer anabolic steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG). Graham alleged that Victor Conte, through the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), was giving THG to world-class U.S. athletes at their request. BALCO was just beginning. President George W. Bush’s 2004 State of the Union Address focused on education reform, Medicare, the Patriot Act, the war on terrorism, and military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president turned next to family values and the war on drugs. “One of the worst decisions our children can make is to gamble their lives and futures on drugs,” Bush warned (Associated Press, 2004). To make the right choices, children need good role models, but, Bush maintained, “some athletes are not setting much of an example. . . . The use of performance-enhancing drugs like steroids in baseball, football and other sports is dangerous, and it sends the wrong message—that there are short cuts to accomplishment, and that performance is more important than character.” Bush challenged professional sports ‘to get rid of steroids now.’ ”
Within days, the San Francisco Chronicle published allegations that Greg Anderson, homerun king Barry Bonds’s personal trainer, had ties to BALCO and gave Bonds THG. The Chronicle alleged that Anderson supplied Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and others with AAS. Steroids and BALCO were now linked within America’s national pastime.
In May 2004, U.S. sprinter Kelli White admitted to taking THG supplied through BALCO. In December 2005, the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport suspended 100-meter world record holder Tim Montgomery for THG use, stripping him of his 2002 record. In November 2006, a federal grand jury indicted Graham for three counts of making false statements to the Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigation Division officials around the BALCO investigations. And in October 2007, sprinter Marion Jones was stripped of her medals and records for taking BALCOsupplied THG.
From a trailer-like office operation (BALCO), run by a self-aggrandizing schemer-entrepreneur (Conte) assisted by his “steroid guru” (Patrick Arnold), BALCO now symbolized the sleaziest aspects of athletes’ greed and lust for record performances and celebrity.
On March 17, 2005, Denise Garabaldi and Don Hooton told the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee that steroids had killed their sons. Subpoenaed to testify, Mark McGuire evaded questions, Rafael Palmeiro denied he had used AAS, and Jose Conseco said his book Juiced told the full story. The event forced Bud Selig to appoint former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell to conduct an independent investigation into steroid use in baseball. Mitchell’s report identified 86 players as users and led to Chuck Knoblauch, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, and personal trainer Brian McNamee testifying before the committee in February 2008. The reality of AAS use by athletes had never been so clear, although its full extent is still shrouded in secrecy. Some athletes, such as Mark McGuire, have begun admitting on their own (albeit belatedly in his case) that they were indeed involved with using AAS.
The future of steroid use by athletes depends upon how four fundamental issues and sets of questions are answered: It is clear that the Olympic Games do not embody Coubertin’s principles and goals; they are a commercial extravaganza that nations exploit for international status, while athletes use them for fame and money. One must ask whether the principles that really underlie contemporary, world-class, high-performance sports justify the exclusion of performance-enhancing substances such as AAS. On what grounds should officials try to restrict scientific performance enhancement in commercial, entertainment spectacles where the ultimate attraction is athletic performance at the outer limits of human potential? What principles apply?
What are the long-term health implications of AAS use by athletes (and by people in the general population)? How safe or dangerous are steroids—unmonitored or monitored by physicians? What are the emotional and cognitive effects that lead to, and may result from, AAS use? Do existing laws on AAS possession and use protect or endanger users?
AAS are not confined to enhancing athletic performance. Athletes are just one source of ideal body images that saturate commercial and entertainment media. “Megarexia”— muscular dysmorphia—has become a serious issue among a growing percentage of young men (and some women). Does the sports ban on AAS help limit the spread of muscular dysmorphia among contemporary youth, or are there more significant factors? Does the WADA ban on steroids limit AAS use among young athletes and nonathletes? If not, what would?
Finally, one must consider the widespread use of drugs in people’s lives today. What are the fundamental concerns and issues related to the increasing use of over-the-counter, prescription, and illegal drugs? Where do steroids fit into those concerns? To reduce steroid use, what changes have to occur in the broader culture?
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- Coubertin, B. P., Olympism: Selected Writings. Lausanne, Switzerland: International Olympic Committee, 2000.
- Fourcroy, Jean L., ed., Pharmacology, Doping, and Sports: A Scientific Guide for Athletes, Coaches, Physicians, Scientists, and Administrators. New York: Routledge, 2009.
- Hoberman, John, Testosterone Dreams: Rejuvenation, Aphrodisia, Doping. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
- Rosen, Daniel M., Dope: The History of Performance Enhancement in Sports from the Nineteenth Century to Today. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008.
- Todd, J., and T. Todd, “Significant Events in the History of Drug Testing and the Olympic Movement: 1960–1999.” In Doping in Elite Sport: The Politics of Drugs in the Olympic Movement, ed. W. Wilson and E. Derse. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Press, 2001.
- Yesalis, C., and Bahrke, M., “History of Doping in Sport.” International Sports Studies 24 (2002): 42–76.