Designer Steroids: Ugly and Dangerous

The word is out, the media are pointing fingers, subpoenas have been issued, and many athletes are running for cover. “Designer” steroids are in the news and circulating in the bloodstreams of some very successful, unethical, and unintelligent athletes — and the situation appears to be getting uglier by the minute.

Exactly what is a designer steroid? Simply put, it is an anabolic drug that has been structurally manipulated to mimic the muscle-building effects of testosterone while sidestepping a positive test result. The drug designers are very well-versed on the mechanisms of the current testing technology, and have the bioengineering expertise necessary to fool the system.

Those of us who hold sacred the integrity of athletics at all levels must understand that we are not dealing with some college kids delving in bathtub chemistry. Individuals with serious scientific acumen are on a mission to produce the perfect performance-enhancing drugs — ones that build muscle and are invisible.

Welcome to age of stealth steroids.

ESPN recently reported that more than 40 track athletes have been subpoenaed to testify before a federal grand jury investigating a prominent sports “nutritionist” on what is being called an international doping conspiracy. Several track and field performers have tested positive for Tetrahydrogestrinone, or THG, which is the most talked-about designer steroid.

Even more frightening than this discovery is that many experts say that THG may be only one of a bevy of other chemicals that unscrupulous biochemists have feverishly produced to fly under the testing radar. Now that THG is detectable, the questions remain: How long have athletes been using this stuff and what else is out there that we still can’t detect? Could there be a multitude of these undetectable compounds in the illegal, performance-enhancing drug pipeline?

Terry Madden, Director of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, calls the THG case “intentional doping of the worst kind.” And while track and field is being indicted as a major offender of THG abuse, other sports — including the NFL, NHL, and Major League Baseball — are being scrutinized for having potential participants in this dangerous game of hormonal roulette. As a matter of fact, the International Olympic Committee and the NFL are considering retroactive testing of urine samples to examine the extent of THG abuse. This could result in medals being stripped and suspensions being imposed.

For some inexplicable reason, however, MLB and the NHL are still dragging their prehistoric knuckles on implementing year-round, random, unannounced steroid testing. This “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” mentality continues to erode the credibility of these sports and victimizes the clean players through guilt by association. The ugly possibilities presented by these recent revelations make corked bats and spitballs seem relatively insignificant.

The Scope of the Problem

The scourge of illicit anabolic-steroid abuse in athletics is nothing new; artificial steroids were formulated back in the 1930s for treating a host of muscle-wasting diseases and sexual dysfunctions. However, the reported dosages used for performance-enhancement and/or increased muscular size are 10-100 times the medical indications.

Unprincipled doctors, coaches, and athletes have channeled the drugs into sports. Their motive is simple: bigger, stronger muscles can equate more strength and speed, and steroids offer a potential shortcut to that end. That assumption can be debated to a degree, but most experts seem to agree that steroids — when combined with aggressive training protocols — can achieve intended goals at a faster rate and to a higher level in most cases.

Many people who abuse steroids are not athletes. They are everyday Joes and Janes who have self-esteem issues about their bodies, or are simply looking for a cosmetic quick fix.

Among adolescents, a survey conducted by The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) found a significant increase in steroid use in 8th- to 12th-graders from 1991-1999. Among high-school seniors, there is also a noted decrease in the perceived harmful effects of the drugs. Whatever we’re doing in our schools from an educational standpoint doesn’t appear to be taking hold. The bottom line: More kids are using steroids, and, for some unknown reasons, they erroneously believe that the health risks have mysteriously diminished.

Kids are taking steroids in a variety of ways, including orally, through intramuscular injection, and even in gels or creams that are rubbed on the skin. Contrary to the reports in underground publications, there is no scientifically substantiated “safe” way to put these drugs into your body. Some users believe that you can avoid negative side-effects by “cycling” or “pyramiding” the doses from low to high for 6 to 12 weeks, then backing-off for a few weeks before resuming the process. The efficacy of these techniques is strictly anecdotal, with no sound science to support any one method for all individuals.

Over-The-Counter Pills

The Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990 banned the distribution of all known steroids. However, Congress could not foresee the new wave of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs known as “pro-steroids” and “precursor steroids.” Two compounds in the pro-steroid classification are 1-testosterone and 4-hydroxy-testosterone, which escaped mention in the legislation because they were virtually unknown. The drug manufacturers claim that these are “natural” substances, and market them as dietary supplements that increase strength and build muscle.

These anabolic compounds have surfaced on nutrition-store shelves in alarming numbers. They have all the markings of full-blown anabolic steroids, so did these chemicals slip through the legal barriers and proliferate as OTC dietary supplements? The steroid precursors convert to illegal drugs only after they have been ingested. And some of the pro-steroids — which are much more potent than the precursors because they don’t require conversion in the body — are either difficult to detect, or are undetectable by current testing procedures.

The deleterious effects of using these so-called supplements, however, are considered by many experts to be just as serious as with any other class of anabolic steroids. Athletes, coaches, and administrators must be cognizant of these OTC products and thoroughly examine the labels on any purchased supplements for potentially dangerous steroidal compounds. Someone who is qualified to identify these chemicals on the list of ingredients should be called on before any supplement distribution takes place.

Proactive Solutions

The sports community must come to the realization that fortune and fame — rather than ethics and fair play — are the motivational fuel for many athletes. And there will always be plenty of chemists willing to satisfy those needs through any means necessary, as their motivation is strictly monetary.

Those of us who have the power and resources to curb this problem must take off the gloves and attack it aggressively on several fronts:

Stay ahead of the testing tit-for-tat game so that our technology is up to snuff with the clandestine labs that are hard at work hoodwinking the system.
Incorporate the best testing procedures at the collegiate, professional, and international levels on a year-round, random, and unannounced basis.
Institute strict penalties for athletes who test positive for anabolic drugs.
Encourage the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take more of a proactive role in regulating the OTC supplement industry, especially with the advent of pro-steroids and precursor steroids.
Intensify and update educational programs at the junior-high, senior-high, and collegiate levels on a yearly basis.
The exposure of the designer-steroid conspiracy should serve as a wake-up call to all coaches, administrators, parents, the governing bodies of high-school associations, the NCAA, professional sports, and state and federal lawmakers. There are athletes who are looking for external growth at the risk of internal peril, and they are getting plenty of help from people who could care less about their health and well-being. To all athletes, both young and old, remember: dying is not winning!