What's the Beef?

Brawny juicers keep pumping steroids, so why aren't more serving time.

Mike first began experiencing symptoms within months of returning from the first Gulf War in 1992. They started with the headaches, then muscle cramps and diarrhea -- each one debilitating, together pure hell.

As an athlete and health nut, he wasn't used to feeling so sick, so depleted. After all, he'd joined the Navy's elite SEAL training precisely to test himself against the hardest the armed services had to offer. Unfortunately, Mike had been injured halfway through the program and was forced to finish his duty as a regular enlistee; still, he worked hard and took care of himself.

But by 1993, the mysterious sickness was exacting a brutal toll. Because of the pain and endless trips to the bathroom, Mike's body was caving in on itself. When he entered the military, Mike weighed a solid 210 pounds, packed densely onto his 5' 8" frame. Two years after he'd been discharged from the Navy, he was an anemic 120 pounds.

Attorney Rick Collins is happy to point out problems 
with steroid laws.
Attorney Rick Collins is happy to point out problems with steroid laws.

The Georgia native had been stationed at Buckley's Naval Space Command, so he decided to stay in Colorado. (Mike asked that his last name not be used for this story.) He went to Kaiser Permanente as well as Veterans Affairs doctors for answers, but tests were inconclusive. On paper, Mike was as healthy as anyone. Still, many days he had to choke down eighteen Imodium tablets just to make it through his thirty-minute commute to work. It was painful and depressing.

So he did what anyone with an inexplicable illness does these days: He logged on to the Internet and began surfing. Soon he made his own diagnosis -- and prescribed a cure. "I'd played a lot of sports when I was young," Mike says, "so I knew about steroids."

Testosterone seemed promising. The male hormone, injected in the right amounts, could stop the dizziness and dry up his insides, he learned. Mike's wife, an intensive-care nurse, saw the research, too, and together they decided that, if he was careful, he could use steroids without a health problem.

Although possessing anabolic steroids is illegal, Mike discovered that finding someone to sell him the drugs was a cinch -- not much different from ordering a book online. Cruising a message board on a steroid-friendly site in 1997, Mike hooked up with a Florida guy willing to ship him the meds: Deca-Durabolin and testosterone. He sent the payments by wire, and his remedy arrived without a hitch.

Mike's symptoms disappeared practically overnight. His weight -- much of it muscle -- flew back on. Before the fix, he could barely make it through the day; now he was preparing for local bodybuilding competitions. Between shows, he tipped the scales at a cut 220, with a super-lean 10 percent body fat. But with a strict diet, intense workouts and the Deca, Mike's show weight dropped to a ripped 185 pounds. His body fat measured about 3 percent.

Over the past year or so, new tales of steroid use among athletes have popped up almost daily. Professional sports organizations, all of which specifically prohibit steroid use, have struggled to convince their players not to take the drugs by threatening a range of penalties, mostly aimed at the pocketbook.

Based on a player's per-game compensation, the penalties can be expensive. Yet one factor that is often overlooked in the daily discussions of the drugs and their effect on sports is that not only are steroids prohibited by athletic organizations, but they're illegal to possess -- just like cocaine and pot and meth.

In the vast majority of cases, steroid users are not prosecuted criminally. An informal survey of Front Range drug-enforcement agencies turned up fewer than a dozen cases in the past several years. One reason for the slim files seems to be a lingering ambivalence about whether steroids, when used by capable adults, are such a bad thing. Although drugs that mimic the effects of the male hormone testosterone have been used to enhance the size and strength of the human body for more than half a century, steroids have been considered illegal in the United States for fewer than fifteen years. And the decision to criminalize them was far from unanimous.

Ironically, the drugs' birthplace was inside the Olympics. In 1954, a doctor for the Soviet Olympic weightlifting team told his American counterpart, Pennsylvania physician John Ziegler, of the amazing effects that a synthetic form of testosterone was having on his bodybuilders. Intrigued by the possibilities for U.S. athletes -- and alarmed at the specter of them falling behind the Soviets -- Ziegler set to work. Four years later, he was handing out a pill he'd invented called Dianabol, manufactured by Ciba.

The use of D-bol and its descendants (Ciba stopped manufacturing genuine Dianabol in 1983) spread quickly among athletes. Despite the recent barrage of revelations of steroid use in modern baseball, recollections from players starting to come forward actually suggest that the drugs enjoyed widespread use as early as the 1960s. Over the years, steroids were also commonly used on the professional bodybuilder circuit, as well as in professional and college sports.

Such popularity notwithstanding, medical information about anabolics has varied widely over the years. In a 1977 position paper, the American College of Sports Medicine claimed that anabolic steroids had no effect on muscle strength or mass. Any perceived gains, the organization insisted, were merely the result of water retention. But those who used them knew different. In most instances, steroids worked like magic. A dedicated athlete new to the drugs could put on several pounds of muscle every week using D-bol -- gains that were otherwise impossible.

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