Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Bigger, Faster, Stronger - why I no longer believe in banning steroids in sport

Over the weekend, I watched and quite enjoyed the 2008 documentary  Bigger Stronger Faster* on Netflix. I found it an honest assessment and good treatment regarding the controversy of steroids in professional and amateur sports, and enjoyed the combination of the director's personal anecdotes and paneling of relevant experts. I recommend watching it regardless of what side of the steroid debate you are on.

My own opinion on steroids in sport has changed significantly in the last couple of years. Not long ago, I was staunchly against steroid users. I thought all users were cheaters, that enforcement needed to be stepped up, and punishment needed to be harsher. I read the book Numbers Rule Your World, which included a chapter on how it was probable that the vast majority of steroid users are not caught, because Type 1 errors (false positives) are far more rare than Type 2 errors (false negatives). In a nutshell, the author argued that almost no one claiming innocence after testing positive is actually innocent, and that there are numerous athletes who are not testing positive but really are on the juice.

At some point, I started to change my mind on the issue. My position just didn't continue to make logical sense to me. It is definitely clear that steroid usage is in fact "cheating" in the sense that it is against the rules. But it's clear that not all forms of cheating are treated the same by sports fans. A basketball player who pushes the bounds of contact with his opponent but doesn't get whistled for a foul is not considered a cheater, he's considered a good defensive player. We have a culture of "it ain't cheating if you don't get caught", especially if you happen to be a fan of the individual committing the foul. And so it is with steroids. The most successful steroid users are those who are able to cycle off steroids in time, so that they don't get caught. What effectively is happening at this point with respect to steroids is that only the dumb, poor, or overly aggressive users are getting caught.

Difficulty in catching steroid users is not itself sufficient to argue that steroids should be legal, of course. Just because something is difficult to enforce does not mean you stop enforcing it, if it is deemed beneficial to do so.

The problem is that I no longer believe that it is beneficial to continue to try to ban steroids. The argument against steroids usually goes something like this:
  • Steroids create an unfair playing field between users and non-users.
  • As such, non-users would feel at a disadvantage; everyone would have to use, or risk being at a competitive disadvantage.
  • Steroids are dangerous/have dangerous side effects. If athletes feel compelled to use steroids, then you are encouraging these athletes to harm themselves.
  • Legalization would encourage children/teens to use them, since their idols would be known to use them.

The Unfair Playing Field

This argument is probably the most common, but the easiest to take apart. The playing field is not fair. Never has been, never will be. Some people were born with better genetics. Some people were born into a better socioeconomic path to athletic stardom. We like to think that with hard work, anyone can become a world champion in any sport, but the hard truth is it's bullshit. If you're not from a village in Kenya or Ethiopia, you're probably not going to be the best long distance runner in the world. Conversely if you *are* from a poor village in Africa, I don't much care for your chances of winning the America's Cup or the PGA Championship.

I find it hard to believe that there are still reasonable people who think that it's totally fair if you're genetically predisposed to having higher testosterone, red blood cell count, bone density, better body composition, and so on, but arbitrarily draw an ethical line at using technology to improve any of the above.

Additionally, I think it's worthwhile to explore the effects of non-steroid enhancement. No one thinks laser vision correction, or surgery to repair injured body parts is cheating.  Nick Diaz, an MMA fighter known for great striking but also famous for always getting cut (a marked disadvantage in a sport where a doctor can stop a fight if he thinks the cut is dangerous), had surgery to shave down some of his facial bones, making it less likely for him to get cut in the future. Absolutely no one in the MMA community thinks this is cheating, at least certainly not on the level that anabolic steroid usage is considered to be.

Even if we're just worried about hormone levels, there are many different ways to increase testosterone. Getting more sleep increases testosterone. Lifting weights increases testosterone. Having sex increases testosterone. Supplementing with Vitamin D increases testosterone. Same with creatine, zinc, and anecdotally, taking cold showers. And some people have genetics that lead to them having higher testosterone. You can't realistically ban these things, and you also can't provide universal access to these things.

It's Dangerous, So It's Unethical To Make People Feel Like They Have To Do It

I think this is the stronger argument. The side effects of anabolic steroid abuse are pretty well known, and they are real. What I find unfortunate about steroid education are the exaggerations and misinformation spread about it. I've never done steroids (nor even been tempted to), but from everything I understand, it's not like users immediately grow hair everywhere, get massive roid rage, grow breasts and have their testicles shrink. I think it's far more likely that if used under proper supervision from a qualified and ethical endocrinologist, steroids probably enhance performance with a small, but significant, amount of side effects.

Like we've seen with criminalization of other drugs like marijuana, exaggerating effects and providing misinformation about steroids inhibits what society really needs -- an open dialogue about the matter. "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" draws a parallel to "Reefer Madness", an absurd 1930s propaganda film which claimed that marijuana would turn users into violent sociopaths (as opposed to useless, lazy stoners). While there is likely more truth in claims of steroid damage, the point remains that providing exaggerations and misinformation prevents a useful dialogue.

Suppose that a given person has decided that he or she will use steroids, and you cannot talk him or her out of it. This person is committed to being the best football player, track and field competitor, powerlifter, bodybuilder, fighter, golfer, or whatever. This person rejects the idea that he cannot be the best, and is willing to go to whatever means necessary to do this. While we wouldn't want our son or daughter to be this person, what is the best situation for this person? The status quo, where this person orders a bunch of steroids over the internet, or perhaps makes a trip to Mexico to get it from a veterinarian? Or one where he or she can have an open dialogue with someone qualified to dispense the steroid; someone who can provide good, honest, ethical advice?

Elite Level Sports Performance Itself Is (Probably) Inherently Unhealthy

To get to an elite level in professional sports, you have to be willing to sacrifice your health. I think this statement comes as a surprise to people, because there is often an association between health and fitness. These two are not the same thing, even though they are so often used together. Elite level professional athletes are almost always very fit. They are stronger, faster, more flexible, and have better endurance than most people. But that does not mean they are healthy.

Elite professional athletes play through pain, injury, and illness. Those are bad things to do. The training required to reach the elite level in most pro sports is unhealthy, or at the very least, it is far from optimizing health. Optimal health for humans probably looks something like: walk a few miles every day, get some more intense exercise 3-4 times a week, and eat regularly while fasting intermittently. But elite level athletes train at a high intensity 5-6 days a week, often two or three times a day. They constantly eat a tremendous amount of calories to fuel that training, and when they are not training they are most likely sleeping, because they are exhausted. The level of fatigue and strain accumulated on an elite level athlete is hard for the average person to fathom, and it likely goes well beyond what is actually healthy in most circumstances. When you think of that way, it's very little wonder why so many athletes die prematurely.

The Maude Flanders Argument

 (I'll take any excuse to use this image.)

Even if it's not expressly stated, a lot of people feel that it's important to villify steroid users because if we don't, we are implicitly saying to children that it's okay to use them. We want our kids to eat their vegetables, so Popeye gulps down a canful of spinach; he doesn't jab a needleful of Winstrol in his ass.

And no, I don't think kids should be using steroids for athletic performance enhancement. But here again, I think it's far better to be able to have a healthy dialogue about steroids than it is to misrepresent and scare children and teenagers. Kids aren't stupid. If you treat them like intelligent, autonomous beings capable of making reasonable decisions, they're actually less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. I see no reason that steroids wouldn't be different.

In "Bigger, Stronger, Faster", one of the protagonists is a steroid user as well as a high school football coach. The coach has clearly lied to his teenaged students about the fact that he uses. You're left to wonder what those kids are supposed to think if they ever get their hands on the documentary that they appear in.

If Steroids Are So Great, Why Don't You Do Them?

Well, quite simply, I don't want to.

I don't want to use steroids simply because of the cost-benefit analysis. From a legal perspective, I'm unwilling to get arrested or otherwise get in trouble with the law to get the performance gains that steroids could potentially provide me.  From a health perspective, I'm not sufficiently knowledgeable about them to feel like I can use them correctly without screwing up my health. I also feel there is a lack of long-term evidence that anabolic steroids can be used safely without significant negative consequences. I'd like to have kids one day, and have no desire to risk infertility. In summary, I don't care so much about being elite that I'm willing to risk the associated health and legal issues.

Every serious athlete has to, at some point, make a choice about how far they are willing to go. Usually, the ones who make it to the top 0.001% of their sport are the ones that are willing to risk everything. They risk concussions, spinal cord injuries, knee surgeries, heart attacks, and more. That elite level athletes are willing to do damage to their bodies is nothing new to sports, but while we lionize the athlete who risks his brain, neck, back, or knees for his sport, we demonize the athlete who risks his endocrine system. This is not logically consistent.

The fact is, I'll never be an elite level athlete in my chosen sport. But I like watching sports, and I'll continue to watch elite level athletes do amazing things. I'll know the lengths they have gone to do these amazing things. They will have likely trained since a very young age, possibly being pressured or even abused by a parent or coach. They will likely have sacrificed academic pursuits in favour of time in the gym or on the field. They will sacrifice time with friends, staying out late, or their favourite foods. They will have pushed their bodies to the limit of failure in both training and competition. They will train and compete through cuts, bruises, aches, sprains, broken bones, and concussions. And I realize that quite possibly, they will have used exogenous hormones to get through all of these things.

Would it be cooler if I knew for certain that those athletes were able to do these things solely through their genetically-granted gifts and their hard work and discipline? Perhaps. To be sure, I think as long as steroids continue to be against the rules, sports organizations should continue to seek out and punish those who use them. But as a society, it grows increasingly hypocritical to demand that our athletes sacrifice their brains, bones, and joints while simultaneously demanding that they keep off the steroids that so many of their rivals are using.


  1. Ahhhh. You're post scares me!
    I generally disagree with making things illegal without really good reason. I don't know how compelling the reasons are with steroids. I also don't care about professional sports at all, so not sure how valid my opinion is.
    I am scared to death at the thought of Colin participation in overly competitive youth sports. I don't know at what age he'll start worrying about being the 'best' or 'better' but I'm sure it will be much younger than I hope. Apparently it's normal for kids to start cutting weight for wrestling as early as Junior High...
    While I agree fully with your argument that it's better to have honest conversations with your kids about everything, it's silly to pretend that accessibility isn’t going to play a role in their decisions. Pushing boundaries and even outright disobedience is a rite of passage for most kids. Illegal clearly doesn’t mean completely inaccessible, but it certainly makes it easier to push boundaries in other directions.

  2. I think really the main argument is that if steroids are legal in a sport, everyone needs to take them to be competitive and they are dangerous is the reason why it's a bad idea to allow them. There is an interesting lab that I wonder if anyone has researched -- body building has two varieties, drug free and no testing. It would be interesting to know if anyone has done long term analysis of the health of the competitors in each.

    " I think it's far more likely that if used under proper supervision from a qualified and ethical endocrinologist, steroids probably enhance performance with a small, but significant, amount of side effects." But that's not how it works. The "proper supervision" is not about how to minimize the health risks, it's to maximize performance, side effects be damned. (Or in today's world, how to maximize performance while still being able to get away with doping.)

    Look how competitive you are with your sport, you were willing to consider delaying fixing *your vision* just to get back into the ring. Imagine if you were the second best in the world, how many drugs would you take to become the best? Look at how much crap the Tour de France riders take knowing that they have to limit it to avoid getting caught. Imagine how much they'd take if there was no testing and no risk of a ban. EPO, HGH, Steroids, testosterone, etc, etc.

    The other issue you don't discuss is fan support. People *want to believe* that their sports heroes are clean and that they are great because of hard work and nature's gifts. As soon as it becomes a contest of who is best at doping, they lose interest. For some sports that may not matter, but for others it could destroy the fan base. Paradoxically, as the sport becomes less important, it becomes less important to dope.

  3. Huge lol at "as opposed to useless, lazy stoners." Found that line so obnoxious and dumb that I had to quit reading.