Has the Steroid Scare Come Full Circle?

by Mike Arnold

When it comes to steroids, there has always been a rift in perception between the general public and the bodybuilding community, particularly as it pertains to their safety. While we like to consider ourselves more enlightened than our non-bodybuilding peers, the reality is that in some ways, we have been just as guilty of ignoring the truth as the sensationalistic media or the propaganda happy government. While we may refrain from engaging in the dissemination of agenda driven falsehoods or the fabrication of imaginary stories for monetary gain, we have traditionally lacked stability in our position, wavering between extremes on the safety front.

I wish I could say that the passage of time, and the increase in knowledge that has come with it, has resulted in an ever-increasing degree of wisdom being applied to our drug use, but this has not always been the case. In fact, the generation that introduced AAS to the bodybuilding community tended to be more apprehensive regarding their safety than later generations, which was certainly warranted given our limited experience with these drugs at the time. Doctors and researchers, as well as some of the more influential members of our community, such as Vince Gironda, took a more level headed approach to the issue, being fully aware of their muscle building benefits, but being careful not to discount the possibility of long-term or internal side effects. For this reason lower dosages were often prescribed and adequate time off was considered mandatory, but not everyone embraced this approach.

By the time we reached the 70’s, steroids were largely viewed as safe drugs by those who used them, with any concern being directed more towards cosmetic side effects like gynecomastia or hair loss. While this mentality wasn’t necessarily compatible with personal responsibility, we should cut these Golden Era guys at least a little bit of slack, as science had not yet revealed the full extent to which AAS could affect the cardiovascular system, liver, kidneys, and so on. These were uncharted waters and with comparatively few medically documented health risks, many bodybuilders threw caution to the wind and pursued their bodybuilding goals with a sense of optimism.

At this time the general public was still extremely ignorant regarding the reality of AAS, with many not even knowing what these drugs were, let alone possessing a comprehensive knowledge of their effects on the human body. It wasn’t until the 80’s that we began to see a divide form between the beliefs of general public and the bodybuilding community—a divide which was about to grow a whole lot wider through the infiltration of propaganda into media, the government, and even our schools. Unfortunately, neither side demonstrated much competence during this time, with bodybuilders greatly downplaying the potential health risks involved and the general public heavily exaggerating them. This led to what may still be the biggest and most influential act of steroid propaganda ever perpetrated on the American people. Enter the Lyle Alzado saga.

For you younger guys who may be unaware, Lyle Alzado was a popular professional football player who was well known for his size, strength, and aggressive behavior on the field. A big man by all accounts, Lyle was a long-term steroid user who even post-retirement, continued to appear on television, talk shows, and even secured various small roles in film. He was well known and widely liked, making him the ideal avenue through which to spread the anti-steroid message, which began with Lyle’s brain cancer diagnosis in 1991.

Shortly after the diagnosis was given he began chemotherapy, but his condition deteriorated rapidly, ultimately leaving him weak and frail in both mind and body. Frightened and distressed, Lyle sought to make sense of his disease, but as with most cancer cases, answers regarding the cause his condition remained elusive. As is common for those in this situation, Lyle sought out a scapegoat on which he could place the blame for his unexpected demise. He chose steroids.

Under the circumstances his choice was understandable. Little was known about the long-term side effects of AAS at that time, which naturally left them vulnerable to suspicion. More so, AAS had already been vilified by nearly every sector of society, making Lyle’s transition from supporter to denouncer all the easier. It didn’t take long for the media to have a heyday with this one, as Lyle was subsequently interviewed for television programs and radio shows numerous times—always for the express purpose of implicating steroids in his soon to be death. Even when his health deteriorated to the point where he could no longer walk, Lyle continued demonizing AAS from his hospital bed, blaming them for his brain cancer and warning others to stay away.

All it took to convince a sizable portion of the American public that steroid’s were responsible for Alzado’s cancer was his own belief that it was so. If Lyle believed it, then it must be true. It sounds silly, I know, but that’s exactly what happened. By and large, no one seemed to question Lyle’s suitability in making such a declaration and even today, over 20 years later, there are still people who cite steroids as the cause of his death.

Keep in mind, this dissemination of misinformation by the media was no accident, as multiple physicians had already decisively proclaimed that AAS did not play any known role in the development of Lyle’s condition. This included the physicians who treated Lyle, as well as many others who took an independent interest in his case. In fact, there was not a single doctor in the medical community who took the official position that AAS we responsible for Lyle’s illness, yet the media chose to ignore professional opinions in favor of baseless finger-pointing. Within a year even our high schools had been infiltrated with this same anti-steroid propaganda, as interviews of Lyle were played as part of the recreational drug curriculum in health classes across the nation. We also began to see signs posted in locker and weight rooms which simply read “steroids kill”—all without any explanation as to how they did so.

As the media, government, and educational system continued to use deceit in an effort to discourage people from steroid use, it had the unintended effect of pushing steroid users in the opposite direction. Many started to wonder why these agencies increasingly turned to lies when attempting to make their case. Some reasoned that the lack of honesty implied a lack of serious side effects, as well as a hidden agenda. At best, confidence had been lost, while many felt they could no longer depend on these sources for information. Unfortunately, this led many to throw the baby out with the bathwater—abandoning these traditional sources of information altogether in favor of their own opinions, which were derived almost solely from their own experiences.

Both good and bad came from this, as the vast collective experience of decades of steroid users provided us with important answers to many questions which had previously gone unanswered. As valuable as this anecdotal evidence may have been, we lacked the ability to accurately detect many of the internal changes which transpired as a result of AAS administration. With many of these changes failing to manifest in immediate external symptoms, knowledge of long-term, accumulative damage remained a matter of speculation.

Attitudes remained constant on both sides of the fence all the way through the mid-2000‘s, at which point the bodybuilding community began to make inroads into changing the mind-set of the general public with movie releases such as Bigger, Stronger, Faster, while prominent bodybuilding journalists like John Romano attempted to paint steroids in a more flattering light. His “show me the bodies” speech (which was recorded in the above film and also published in print) was likely well meaning, but misguided. He argued that the lack of medically documented cases in which steroids were listed as the cause of death, was proof that AAS weren’t really killing anyone and that the whole steroid scare had been blown out of proportion by the media.

John was correct about a few things. For one, the media had often been guilty of propagating inaccurate information in order to sell stories and boost ratings, which led the general public to come to false conclusion regarding the true health risks of these drugs. John was also right in that very few documented cases exist within the medical community that list steroids as the cause of death. However, John was not correct in his belief that steroids are nothing more than benign drugs with only mild health consequences. The absence of medical documentation is not proof of innocence—it simply means that AAS were not the “direct” cause of death.

For example, if someone overdoses on cocaine, has a heart attack, and then dies, the cause of death will be listed as “heart attack”, even though cocaine was responsible for inducing the heart attack. In the same way, someone could decide to eat 5 sticks of margarine per day, die of a heart attack at age 45 and again, the cause of death will be listed as heart attack. No mention will be made in the medical report of the factors which may have led to the heart attack.

It’s no different with AAS. Today, we know quite a bit about how these drugs affect the various organs/systems of the body. For example, we know that they can increase blood pressure, result in severe negative alterations in the cholesterol profile, substantially elevate hematocrit, cause left ventricular hypertrophy, and even impair heart function, all of which can dramatically increase the risk of heart attack and/or stroke. Any attempt to portray AAS as inconsequential to one’s health, especially in light of current knowledge, is foolish to say the least.

Prior to this point the government had pretty much stayed away from using the media to vilify AAS, instead choosing to show their disdain by taking legal action, such as the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990, which was designed to “provide criminal penalties for illicit use of anabolic steroids and for coaches and others who endeavored to persuade or induce athletes to take anabolic steroids”. They later amended this act in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2014, all of which directly targeted the over the counter sale of unscheduled designer steroids. Although one might disagree with the criminalization of AAS, at least these acts were straightforward and consistent with the government’s position on recreational drugs in general.

However the government did finally throw its hat in the mud-slinging ring in the mid-2000’s, when they intentionally involved themselves in major league baseball and the Olympic Games. A massive waste of tax payer money, many saw this—and rightly so—as a pathetic move in the government’s war against steroids, as the stated agenda was not only outrageous, but it demonstrated a clear incompetence in terms of the government’s ability to prioritize the nation’s needs. Over a billion dollars were wasted prosecuting athletes who may have cheated in their sport of choice. A worthless and ludicrous intervention, it accomplished nothing more than making fools out of our leaders.

2013 was a pivotal year in changing the attitudes of bodybuilders, as it marked the death of over a dozen high-profile competitors, the deaths of whom were all strongly linked to drug use. Many who held a kamikaze attitude in this area began to seriously contemplate, some for the first time, the effects that these drugs were having on their bodies. Reality began to sink in, alerting them to the fact that such unbridled use, especially in the absence of preventative care, was likely to lead to serious health issues—the most pressing of which were premature heart attack and stroke.

It would be nice to think that the growing number of R.I.P. threads was enough to nudge bodybuilders onto a better path, but it took a bit more convincing—mostly in the form of medical research. With science having confirmed the potential of AAS to adversely impact health markers associated with the cardiovascular, hepatic, renal, adrenal, endocrine, and reproductive systems, bodybuilders could no longer remain in the dark. As more respected people in the industry began to speak up about these health risks and provide ways to counteract or minimize them, those with a brain took this advice to heart and began to place greater emphasis on health maintenance. As for the rest, well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.

Today, the bodybuilding community is still comprised of people from both camps, but the important thing is that we now possess the knowledge required to mitigate the majority of AAS induced side effects. Finally, the pendulum has swung back to center, leaving us with a more balanced view of drugs within our sport. Even the general public has come along quite a way in their understanding, although to a lesser degree, no doubt. Over the last 60 years our views have gone from one extreme to the other and back again, now being more closely aligned with the mind-set of the original, 1950’s generation of steroid users, but with a greatly increased level of knowledge.

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