Thoughts on steroids, redux

by on December 13, 2007 at 5:40 pm in Sports | Permalink

I don’t usually recycle posts but this one is from the early days of MR, and my view on steroids hasn’t changed much.  Excerpt:

Note that the Olympics probably prosper more from competitive balance
than from a single dominant country. Was it really so much fun for the
rest of the world to watch the Soviets win all those medals? This would
predict that the Olympics should take special care to ban
performance-enhancing drugs, which is indeed the case.

Baseball is again thrown under a cloud, and one obvious question is how much we have close substitutes for our increasingly damaged pride in the sport.  The likely eventual outcome is a long-run equilibrium where all performance enhancements are allowed, thereby placing an inefficient tax on amateurs and performers who don’t need to be the very best.  Unless you think real enforcement is possible, the publicness of today’s not-even-surprising revelations means the game has no other way to go.  Common knowledge does matter.  So even if some of you think it might be more efficient to simply allow steroid use and then look the other way, that is not obviously an attainable equilibrium.

enrique December 13, 2007 at 6:31 pm

I really don’t see what all the fuss is about , since no one is “forced” to use steroids if they don’t want to (though I understand the arms-race logic to the problem) – why not just allow players to take what they want so long as they openly disclose what substances they are taking – and then let the fans decide which they prefer: average but clean athletes or superathletes on steroids

Samir Nurmohamed December 13, 2007 at 6:44 pm

“…No one is “forced” to use steroids if they don’t want to (though I understand the arms-race logic to the problem)…”

The arms race logic IS the problem. Consider the backup catcher on a MLB team. If the team’s catcher in the minors is using roids, then he could very well be out of a job if he doesn’t, “Keep up with the Jones.”

Of course MLB will have to decide whether it wants to regulate itself or not (and also, whether it plans to do so in a serious manner), much like how I have decided that I’d rather watch something else.

samson December 13, 2007 at 6:54 pm

I prefer sports to spectacles. I don’t see how performance-enhancement drugs would result in sport. Implicit in the expression “be a good sport” is the idea that competition is fair and revelatory of the inherent ability of the players. Sports games aren’t about the spectators. Unfortunately, this has been lost on the American sporting world, and arguably European soccer is rapidly heading the way of American professional sports. I wish the Ancient Greeks ethos in this matter still pervaded our society.

sa December 13, 2007 at 7:26 pm

Excellent comment by Yomotov.

improbable December 13, 2007 at 7:37 pm

“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” (Hemingway)

In these sports it was understood that you chose your balance of risk and glory. I think racing has since been regulated to be far less deadly, and I know nothing about bullfighting, but this is certainly still true in the mountains. This might be a useful data point when trying to imagine sports with drugs allowed.

My first instinct is to allow everything. But I can’t imagine the watching public greeting the death of a few baseball players who pushed too hard (as would happen) in the same way that they greet deaths of mountaineers today. Which makes me think we’ll be stuck with drug bans (imperfectly enforced) for a long time yet.

foxmarks December 13, 2007 at 8:11 pm

Where’s the evidence of the inevitability of the *arms race*? Why is To allow them, in any sport, is to require them?

There are multiple performance-enhancing activities, behaviours or lifestyles which athletes do not follow. Eating clean, staying away from Cristal and late-night hoochie parties will lead to better performance (ceteris paribus). Yet, how many NFL or NBA stars, superstars or schlubs do not follow such obvious and permissible regimes?

Maybe there is an optimum regime of permissible enhancements for any nobly imagined form of competition. samson’s *sport v. spectacle* is more a continuum than a binary choice. Who is qualified to dictate the preferences of fans or athletes? The whole discussion boils down to each of us trying to force everyone else subscribe to our ideals.

angus December 13, 2007 at 8:24 pm

But isn’t the whole reason to become an athlete the “late night hoochie parties”? Actually, come to think about it, who care what time of day they are!

meter December 13, 2007 at 9:51 pm

Baseball is a particularly contentious sport to test the steroids issue because of its long and storied history. As compared to other American sports, baseball isn’t so much a draw for the nonstop action as it is for the tradition, the rivalries, the races, and probably most of all the chasing of records. If the records/tradition part of the sport becomes meaningless, I have to believe that professional baseball will lose a significant portion of its appeal as a sport.

chas December 13, 2007 at 10:51 pm


Isn’t this exactly the way it works now? Or was that your point?

LemmusLemmus December 13, 2007 at 11:23 pm

I am all up for legalizing all performance-enhancing drugs that are (relatively) safe.

Legalizing all performance-enhancing drugs would turn sports into a competition about who is the greatest risk-taker. Which nobody wants to know.

While I’m at it, in the Olympics and European football, all illegal drugs are on the doping list. That is, if you are shown to have taken marijuana or LSD, you are assumed to have tried to enhance your performance by those means. Ridiculous.

Rex Rhino December 14, 2007 at 12:38 am

Perhaps if performance enhancing drugs were legal and allowed in sports, there would be an incentive for companies to produce non-harmful performance enhancing drugs?

Or does everyone think that if performance enhancing drugs are legalized that no-one will come up with anything better than the same 50 year old recipe for synthetic testosterone?

jim December 14, 2007 at 2:10 am

The fact is even the “natural” athletes are competing with unfair biochemistry due to the luck of the genetic lottery. Often with negative health effects. Black men dominate American sports, and also have much lower average lifespans. It seems plausible there is a common biochemical reason, but there’s no way to know with our current state of knowledge.

I think the source of the revulsion by the public is that steroids and HGH make our machine-like nature all too obvious. Most everybody finds the idea of humans as just complex machines to be abhorrent, so we react with anger and disgust. Sports steroid scandals bring this idea to all levels of society.

Mainly we just need better steroids, better drugs. Player A is born with the genetic machinery to produce certain chemicals more efficiently than Player B. Why shouldn’t Player B be allowed to compensate?

What better use for drugs than to make us stronger, smarter, and better than we “naturally” would be?

It’s interesting that we are accepting this more for mental health issues than physical traits. Millions of people take anti-anxiety and anti-depressants even though their symptoms aren’t acute. For most of human history these people would have just been considered naturally shy, nervous, timid, or melancholic. But we now consider people who aren’t confident and content to have a illness worth treating. Many choose to, but most don’t.

Why shouldn’t somebody be strong and fast if they want to? I look forward to the day when we can choose our own biochemistry. Sadly, our crude technology means there are many unknown risks and side-effects to modifying our biochemistry.

mack December 14, 2007 at 9:37 am

Even with roids baseball is painfully boring. They need to try something else.

Brutus December 14, 2007 at 10:33 am

As someone who has been around weight rooms for 35 years, this is a trend I’ve been watching since the 70′s, when the East Germans and the Pittsburgh Steelers linemen showed the benefits of steroid use. The best example of the benefits of steroid use is the wide-angle photo of the starting blocks before the 1976 Olympic women’s 100M freestyle swimming final. The ‘roid-jacked damsels (can’t really call them women) from East Germany look like women among a bunch of pre-pubescent girls from the other countries! And these people were not making millions of dollars from their drug abuse like the guys we’re talking about here. How on earth can they be expected to stay clean when that kind of money is at stake? Would YOU turn down the opportunity to earn, say, $50 million over 5 years, just with your God-given talent and a little juice?

First, all of the strict ban people out there-please link us to a definitive LONG-TERM study of the health effects of monitored steroid use. According to the HBO show Real Sports last year, there aren’t any. The Caminitis and Alzedos (and Schwarzneggers) out there suffered health problems due to overdosing for maximum gain. The reporter for HBO met with a group of 60-something body builders in Florida that have been using the juice since the 60′s, and they all strictly monitor their health. None have suffered any effects from their steroid use. I’ve read nothing since about any studies, but with all the media coverage, I’d imagine that the bloviating talking heads would have some proof for their statements. I recall that HBO actually had a doctor saying that monitored used of steroids by adult males is safe. Additionally, people in the know at the gym tell me that today’s steroids are much safer than the old, oil-based varieties.

The fairness arguement has some traction in this discussion, but the haphazard nature of testing programs, and that includes the august World Doping Agency and their idiotic head Dick Pound (a guy with that name should really be doing gay porn) cannot guarantee 100% fair and undisputable tests. So, as some have pointed out, maybe letting everything go is the only way to have a truly level playing field. As Jim Bouton pointed out 40 years ago in his seminal sports diary Ball Four, if you were to offer a pitcher a pill that would allow him to win 20 games per season but take 10 years off his life, you’d be hard pressed to find one that wouldn’t take it.

Of course, this would only apply to adult males, an important distinction given the current rampant steroid abuse by high school athletes and girls (teenage girls being the fastest-growing segment of steroid abusers). M. Hodak, up here in Massachusetts football is not the religion that it is in most parts of the country, but there is still a steroid problem. I see kids at my gym that get big so fast that they walk like Frankenstein becuase their motor skills haven’t caught up to their size!

josh December 14, 2007 at 12:47 pm

Ken Caminiti died from a Cocaine induced heart-attack.

Hypogonadism??? December 14, 2007 at 5:54 pm

The problem with all of this is that because of all the press surrounding this stuff a ton of miss-information goes around.

I suffer from hypogonadism. This is a lack of naturally produced Testosterone. The result of this is that I have a higher rate of mortality by 41% from all causes. Thus the medical remedy for this is for me to take anabolic steroids – not mega-doses like the athletes; but just enough to keep my blood levels in a moderate range for a man my age. However, that is not possible due to the laws in this country because some sports guy may have an unfair advantage – my medical use is regulated by law and not what my body requires???

Every other country has medical exceptions – but not the good old USA.

What is needed is some common sense to be applied.

I have never had ‘roid rage’ in fact to have the testosterone my body needs calms me down significantly because my body is no longer under stress due to lack of hormone. The so called roid-rage is because people are doubling and tripling the normal testosterone levels found in normal human populations.

We need to look at who is using this stuff and for what reason. Lance Armstrong had no balls, his hypogonadism was significantly worse than mine. However, one thing I am certain is that his performance was enhanced by the use of steroids over his testosterone free state. To what degree? Could we have had a Lance without testosterone? I seriously doubt it. Is this fair? I doubt it, but I also know it is equally unfair to penalize those of us with a condition similar to Lance from continuing to lead a normal life in a time when we can medically do something for us because somebody else may have an unfair advantage in a *game* ?!?

There is another way to make sure they don’t have an unfair advantage – castrate them all. All testosterone on the market today has ‘markers’ so that it can be detected for safety reasons.

My point is that we need to stop being stupid about this stuff and apply a little common sense. Nothing is fair; the playing field never was level – and it is stupid to ever think that it was – we just happen to know what some of the contributers to great performance is now; and some have always had genetic advantage; now it is possible to equalize that advantage through science. However, some will still have more fast-twich muscle fibers, some will have more slow-twich. Others still will have genetically superior cardio-vascular systems.

At the very least those of us with Medical need should be allowed to have what our bodies need and let the sports dopers sort it out. This is not an issue of federal importance. And laws should never have been enacted to regulate the use of performance enhancing drugs. caffeine is a performance enhancing drug, and athletes are not allowed to use it in some situations and still compete – but we don’t have federal laws regulating your coffee consumption?

The whole thing is ridiculous.

Brutus December 17, 2007 at 9:06 am

Steve, any research into ‘roid rage will also have to take into consideration just what type of person, absent any financial gain from their steroid abuse like a professional athlete, will do steroids just for a better body.

I know these people; hell, I spot for these people at the gym, and I’m here to tell you that most, if not all, have a few more demons wandering around in their heads than the average person. These hormones just make it easier for said demons to get out and stir around in public. Is it normal behavior for a 38-year old mother of three, like a woman at my gym, to get sick of the lack of muscle gain due to her natural (4’10″, 93 lbs.) genetic heritage, causing her to start a “supplement” cycle which allowed her to pack on 15 pounds of muscle? Her newly-grown muscles, along with her new breast implants, allowed her to happily to coat herself with bronzer and oil and parade around in front of a crowd of like-minded muscleheads wearing a crotch-floss bikini. But like all the steroid abusers I know, her success has only made her want to investigate new ways to warp her physique to fit her chosen sub-cultural template.

I truly believe that these people bring their own psychological issues to the table, and they are only exacerbated by the juice.

The allure of steroids is real; I had a long layoff from the gym due to a knee injury from playing basketball. When I went back to the weights, the muscle pain was pretty bad, so I used creatine for a month to help me get through the “wall”, and the stuff was amazing. It showed me what a real steroid would do, and I have to say it kind of scared me.

srp December 17, 2007 at 10:27 pm

The funny thing about the baseball situation is that all the “clean” heroes of the past–Willy Mays, Roberto Clemente, etc–operated in an environment where amphetamines were routinely used to get players “jacked up” enough to focus on their (admittedly boring) jobs at at a competitive level. Bowls of greenies supposedly sat out in the open everywhere. The use of stimulants was just cracked down on in the last year or two–now you have guys bingeing on caffeine-loaded “energy drinks’ in search of the same effects.

BC December 19, 2007 at 12:16 am

I’m with those who say that if adult athletes want to take performance enhancing drugs, let ‘em. Who are we to say that if they want to shorten their life-spans for the dough, fame and glory, they can’t do it (if I had that Achillean choice, I might very well take it, but I’m afraid not even ‘roids would make a pro out of me!). For those worried about legalization leaving relative performance unchanged, I reply, relative to who? One of the reasons I watch high-performance sports is not only to see the athletes match their skills against one another, but also to contemplate their performances relative to what I can do (a mere normal human). The amazement and pleasure I get from the latter will be enhanced with the enhanced performances I get to view. I don’t buy arguments for banning enhancers that refer to “natural” or “inherent” abilities (usually in lamentation, because these things aren’t somehow “getting their due”). Nautilus machines, protein drinks, and all the rest of modern sports/sports medical/fitness/nutrition science don’t seem anymore natural/unnatural. Those who say we shouldn’t allow adult athletes to choose to take the risk must then also be against all risky sports (eg, boxing, football, climbing Mt. Everest, cliff diving, etc). As for the TV audience allegedly having to witness increased death (and the reaction), do you really think it will be so much worse? I mean, don’t the enhancers make it more likely that athletes will be more durable? Why wouldn’t allowing them end up being a wash?
And I agree with those who note that legalization would bring safer enhancers and more medical supervision. Yes, there’d be those who’d “press the limits,” but that’s sport. Moreover, it’s not as if athletes have a deathwish; they want to continue to reap the rewards of being pro athletes. I think it highly unlikely that very many will take on so much risk that they may drop dead on the field with every snap, pitch, etc, of the ball.

Lastly, the only real problem: minors being more encouraged to take them, and the increased availability to minors. This, I think, is the only valid argument for continuing to try to ban enhancers. Nevertheless, we could at least have a discussion about what steps we could take to prevent minors from taking them if we legalized them for adults. We don’t ban alcohol for adults after all; why is this any different? I would think that demand for highly risky enhancers would be fairly small, probably limited to professionals (college players present an interesting threshold case, where minors become adults, and some, mostly at the big time programs have almost more “professional” cache than most actual professionals). Given the small demand, we might think it would be fairly easy to regulate risky enhancers, track where they all go, etc., in order to keep them out of the hands of minors (does our prescription system not generally work to prevent minors from getting prescription drugs?). Maybe that’s just wishful thinking, but I want some evidence that would strongly suggest that legalization/regulation would mean the problem with minors taking enhancers would be worse than it is now before we go paternalistically limiting the freedom of adults.

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