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The Downside of Doping Up


The Downside of Doping Up

Citius, altius, fortius. Swifter, higher, stronger. This Olympic motto is based on the Greek ideals of discipline, dedication, sweat and fair play. Today it has a shadowy side.

Citius, altius, fortius. Swifter, higher, stronger. This Olympic motto is based on the Greek ideals of discipline, dedication, sweat and fair play. Today it has a shadowy side.

Contemporary science of muscle physiology and pharmacology has spawned a Pandora's box of chemicals that athletes use to develop bigger, stronger muscles, for more endurance and for appearance. This raises several questions: What are the prime motivations for using steroids? What about the health risks? Is it possible to train without drugs?

Artificial ergogenic aids are substances that enhance energy production or recovery to provide athletes with a competitive advantage. In the high-risk category are anabolic steroids, insulin and human growth hormone (HGH), all of which were originally developed for medical treatment of pathological conditions. These synthetic drugs influence the endocrine system to make muscles bigger, stronger and more defined, "sculpted" or "cut." Their use in sport started when Olympic athletes in the 1950s began taking high doses of steroids in experimental trials to gain an edge. It's estimated that 90 percent of wrestlers, powerlifters and body-builders now use drugs because they are considered necessary to compete professionally.


Anabolic steroids are synthetic derivatives of the male sex hormone testosterone and act by increasing metabolism of ingested protein. The increased metabolism directly induces skeletal muscle synthesis, lowers body fat and provides a "steroid rush" the ability to train harder and longer without fatigue.

Steroids are androgenic, meaning that they promote the development of male sexual characteristics and reproductive organs. Risks from steroid use include trembling, severe acne, fluid retention, aching joints, high blood pressure, lower HDL (the "good" cholesterol), jaundice and liver tumours. Other side-effects are shrunken testicles, reduced sperm count, impotence, infertility, baldness, development of breasts, difficulty or pain in urinating and an enlarged prostate.

Women athletes who use steroids risk growth of facial hair, changes in or cessation of the menstrual cycle, deeper voices and reduced breast size. In addition, behavioural changes for both sexes include wide mood swings, anger and, in extreme cases, paranoia, impaired judgment and delusions. These side-effects can last long after steroid use is discontinued and are often permanent.

Human Growth Hormone

Human growth hormone (HGH) is a popular drug because it's readily available and undetectable by current drug tests. (The Olympic committee vows to have a test for HGH in the near future.) HGH was initially promoted as an anti-aging panacea because of its rejuvenating effects on organs and metabolism. It also enhances muscle growth.

Dr Gary Wadler, a sports medicine specialist, author and consultant to the US government on drug abuse in sports, notes that "those who are taking growth hormones to get bigger muscles are not getting better quality muscles. In fact, they're getting somewhat diseased muscles." This hormone in overabundance produces pathological growth. Risks of HGH include hypoglycemia (low blood sugar level), inadequate thyroid function, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart or kidney enlargement.


Insulin is used in the medical treatment of diabetes, but it has become popular among body-builders due to its anabolic effects of bringing glycogen and other nutrients to the muscles. However, it is a dangerous drug if used improperly and can cause strong side-effects, including severe hypoglycemia, coma and death. It is often used with HGH in a "stacking" effect (combining various drugs to gain optimal results or reduce side-effects).

The US National Institute for Drug Abuse noted that there was a "significant increase from 1998 to 1999 in steroid abuse among middle school students." Health Canada has also stated, "In a recent survey, about 83,000 young Canadians, mostly young men between 11 and 18, reported using steroids at least once." Half of them reported using steroids to "change their appearance" and to improve performance.

Are Drugs Necessary?

Is it possible to build a stronger, bigger, more powerful body without dangerous or questionable substances? Sean Toohey, author of Steroids, Supplements and the Decline of True Physical Culture, writes that "men from the golden age of strength didn't bother with drugs. They didn't bother with 'isolation' work and 'pumping up.' They lifted weights in such a manner that they built incredible physical strength...and not just the ability to demonstrate strength either! They actually improved their body's capacity to tolerate exercise by working such things as their lungs, connective tissue and stabilizing muscles. They applied themselves diligently and progressively...and the end result was a body that would not get injured, would not soften up and lose size if exercise was dropped for a few weeks, and they lived productive and healthy lives."

Natural body-building still exists for those who choose to do so with no risks from drugs and for motivations other than self-image or winning at all costs. In general, a high-quality diet based on whole natural foods and supplements, in combination with proper training and discipline, will produce the kind of body Sean Toohey speaks about the kind of body possessed by legendary bodybuilders John Grimek, Steve Reeves and Jack Lalanne.

Nature always bats last. We play with drugs at our peril. Today, to the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius we might profitably add Integritas. Integrity.



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