The Truth About Drugs in Sports

by Josh Hodnik

Bonds, Clemens, and Armstrong have become synonymous with steroid use in sports. Any time a high profile athlete is accused of using any performance enhancing drug, the story is plastered across the news and social media. The reason the media puts an emphasized focus on these stories is because people enjoy reading about scandals, and more importantly, they thrive on seeing an athlete fail that has succeeded in areas where most never will. Let’s face it, being a great athlete is viewed as being a pretty big deal these days. Professional athletes earn a salary and live a lifestyle that can be envied by most.

Scandals involving steroids and athletes seem to produce something magical. Every Monday Morning Quarterback instantly becomes an expert on anabolic steroids once the news of a top level athlete and doping is reported by ESPN. They may not be able to name a single type of anabolic steroid, but they are able to explain the dangers of steroids and how they are responsible for athletes like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens reaching the pinnacle in their sport. Many of these men sit on barstools after work demanding that an asterisk be put next to records of athletes that have been linked to steroid use. They believe that the implicated athletes are cheaters and they don’t deserve to be recognized as great athletes due to using anabolic steroids. The common perception is that performance enhancing drug use is fairly uncommon, strict drug testing catches and deters users, and that the few caught wouldn’t have had stellar careers if they hadn’t used steroids and other drugs. This perception couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Jose Canseco claimed that 85 percent of baseball players used anabolic steroids during the time that he played. During this time, also known as the steroid era of baseball, many major league sluggers carried a physique that resembled that of an NFL linebacker. These monsters of baseball were launching the ball out of park at a higher rate than ever before. Records were being shattered and the game became interesting again. The fans loved it and ticket revenue showed it. Owners of organizations that were in the hole were now able to dig themselves out and started to generate a profit. One could say that after the 1994 MLB strike, the steroid era saved the game of baseball. During this time, there were no legitimate enforcement of steroid testing in baseball. This meant that players could take just about any anabolic steroid or performance enhancing drug that they wished without getting caught. Higher doses of anabolic steroids were in fact taken by MLB players in the late 80s and mid-90s and this lead to much larger athletes when compared to the players of today or prior to the late 80s. During this period, fans were lined up at ballparks or sitting in front of their televisions waiting to witness a new home-run record being broken. The fans couldn’t get enough of it; but at the same time, they were still in the dark in regards to their favorite baseball player injecting testosterone or numerous other drugs into their body. Owners and team personnel knew of steroid use among players; and so did everyone else in baseball. No one cared. It wasn’t until BALCO that fans truly learned about steroid use in baseball. There had always been speculation among certain players, but it was always swept under the rug and forgotten. When Congress stepped in and pushed the MLB commissioner’s hand, everything changed, and not just in baseball. Congress would call a hearing in 2005 where several players would be questioned under oath, and they would push baseball to implement a new drug testing policy. Major League Baseball felt they had no choice but to put together a very stringent policy. It was either that or the federal government would step in to take control of drug testing in baseball. No one wanted that. The policy that would come about would be the strictest on paper that any major professional sport in the United States had ever seen.

Many may believe that performance enhancing drug use started during the steroid era and ended after baseball implemented its new drug testing policy. Drug use in sports is nothing new and it is far from being over. Historically, performance enhancing drugs can be traced back to the original Olympic Games (776 BC), where athletes would drink wine potions and consume hallucinogens and animal testicles to gain an edge. Fast forward to the late nineteenth-century and you have cyclists consuming alcohol and cocaine to fight off fatigue.

In the early twentieth-century, mixtures of cocaine, heroin, and caffeine were commonly used by Olympic athletes. High powdered stimulants and other pain killing narcotics would remain performance-enhancing drugs of choice for several decades. Anabolic steroid use was rare among athletes before the late 1950s. As time passed, policies and drug testing were put into place that made it more difficult for athletes to use amphetamines and other narcotics. It wasn’t long before the strength and muscle building properties of anabolic steroids were discovered by weightlifters and bodybuilders. News of how competitive weightlifters were crushing previous numbers with the use of anabolic steroids wouldn’t stay within weightlifting and bodybuilding circles for long.

During the Olympics in Rome in 1960, the Soviet weightlifting team took 5 of the 7 possible gold medals. The United States brought home just one. The huge advantage during the Rome Olympics by the Soviets are said to be from the use of the potent steroid Dianabol. It had just been synthesized and brought to the market two years prior, and US Weightlifting coach, Bob Hoffman, added Dianabol to his program from then on. A trainer by the name of Alvin Roy worked with the U.S. team during this time. Roy would go onto open his own weightlifting studio in 1962, and he would become the NFL’s first strength and conditioning coach when he was hired by the San Diego Chargers that same year.

With the Chargers, Roy implemented an intense training program, told the players that they needed to take in extra protein, and of course, supplied them all with Dianabol. Roy’s impact was felt immediately. They would rack up an 11-3 record his first year there, after finishing just 4-10 the previous year. While in San Diego for 5 years, they would go onto play for 3 AFL titles and win one in 1963. Roy would become well known throughout the league as the “Medicine Man.” He would go on to work for the Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, and the Oakland Raiders before dying of a heart attack in 1979. He would run the same program with these teams as he did with the Chargers, and he is said to be responsible for the widespread use of anabolic steroids in the NFL at this time.

There is no question that anabolic steroids were commonly used in the NFL during the Alvin Roy era. It was legal then and there was no policy prohibiting their use in the NFL until 1983. This rule wasn’t enforced with suspensions until 1989. We can look back at the San Diego Chargers of 1963. It’s estimated, by players themselves, that 95 percent of players took anabolic steroids. Particularly Dianabol. During this time, offensive linemen were usually under 250 pounds, with a hefty amount of body fat! Any player, whether it was a small wide receiver or defensive back, was considered extremely fast if he ran the 40 yard-dash in under 4.5 seconds. Today, offensive linemen are well over 300 pounds with much less body fat than in previous years.

Below are the steps that the NFL has taken over the years to “improve” their drug testing policy since it was first put together:

1987 – NFL tested for steroids and had no penalty. A 6:1 testosterone to epitestosterone ratio was considered a positive test.
1989 – NFL hands out its first 4 game suspensions for a positive steroid test.
1990 – NFL begins year-round drug testing.
1991 – Congress classifies steroids a federally controlled substance.
1991 – NFL adds HGH to its list of banned substances.
2005 – NFL lowers the threshold for a positive test: now 4:1 ratio instead of a 6:1 ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone for a positive test.
2014 – NFL begins blood tests for HGH.

One would believe that with all these changes with policies and drug testing in the NFL that anabolic steroid use would be a thing of the past, or much less common. One would also have to be ignorant to believe that steroid use has declined or stopped in the NFL while the players have gotten much bigger, stronger, faster, and leaner. Of course, the argument can be made that nutrition is much better today, off-season training methods have improved, and the fact that a higher number of athletes play competitive sports today in comparison to the past, which gives you a better selection of the gene pool. This may all play a role in the variance of the NFL athlete of today versus the one that played for the 1963 San Diego Chargers, but these leaps could not have been made by not taking performance enhancing drugs when used in the past.

There is not a professional sport today where athletes have not become bigger and stronger. The BALCO scandal forced the hand of all major sports bodies to tighten their ropes when it comes to drug testing and enforcement of their policy. Testing among professional athletes has increased dramatically over the past decade. However, positive tests have not necessarily increased with the testing frequency. Most people outside of professional sports assume that a negative test equals a clean athlete. That is not the case. It is more complicated than that.

The NFL began giving blood tests for HGH in 2014. Their policy states that no tests can be given at all on game day, and tests given in the offseason allow the athlete a 24-hour window, after notification of the test before giving a sample. 24 hours is more than enough time needed for HGH to clear the system. Anabolic steroid tests are easily beatable in the NFL. I am not trying to dissect the drug-testing policy in the NFL, but merely making the point that steroid testing in the NFL and in all other professional sports is just a dog and pony show. Testing in no way is intended to keep a sport clean. It is there to keep the public at ease.

Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson was shamed after testing positive for Winstrol during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He was stripped of his gold medal and was not able to compete for 2 years. This story made big news and everyone seemed content that a “cheater” was caught and that the medal was passed down to a deserving clean athlete. What many don’t know is that of the seven sprinters that ran against Johnson, five have since been linked to performance-enhancing drug use. With Ben Johnson being stripped of his medals, banned from 2 years of competition, and publicly shamed, the International Olympic Committee can make people believe that they have athletes in check and the majority are clean. They must know this is false.

As technology in drug testing has improved, so has the methods at beating the tests. Often, medical advisors for drug testing organizations are associated with doctors that work with professional athletes. When a testing method changes, the athlete is advised on how to pass a test before it is even given. Rarely, you will see a big name athlete test positive for a banned substance.

Steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are common in every major professional sport. This even funnels down to the NCAA, and it has been going on for decades. As long as professional sports bring fame and fortune, athletes will take anything to compete. This is their livelihood, and their career. The playing field is level because almost everyone is taking something. For some reason, baseball has drawn more interest when it comes to players using anabolic steroids than any other sport. Maybe this is because it is such a numbers game. That is how a player’s career is defined. Players that played in the amphetamine era may feel shafted because they didn’t have access to an anabolic steroid that Barry Bonds took.

People that criticize steroid use among athletes are often the same ones that applaud homeruns being knocked out of the park or a vicious hit that is delivered at a blazing speed by a 260 pound, NFL linebacker. They can’t have things both ways. If all professional athletes stopped taking performance-enhancing drugs, the game would slow down tremendously. Athletes would be much smaller, and careers would not last as long due to injuries and aging. After watching at today’s level, the excitement would be gone.

After the BALCO scandal made headlines, people were calling baseball players role models.They said they were sending the wrong message to children. For one, it’s a parent’s job to guide their child to make certain decisions instead of letting them rely on an athlete they have never met. Secondly, no one would have known about any of the steroid use if the media and Congress didn’t chase it like they do. It would have been like the 60s and 70s. Your favorite ball player was probably using something then, but no one talked about it, and no one really cared.