Steroids(99641)Credit: photo by Roberta F.

The desire to achieve elite status in sports can entice some athletes to go beyond natural abilities and skills to enhance their performance.  In the last decade a light has been shown on the use of performance enhancing drugs within professional sports.  However, it is not just professional sports where performance enhancing substances have taken root; high school and collegiate athletes have also looked to steroids and other drugs to help them perform at a higher level.

 What are Steroids

 Anabolic steroids, usually referred to as simply “steroids,” are technically anabolic-androgenic steroids (AAS).  The origins come from the Greek; anabolic means “to build,” and androgenic means “masculinizing.”  Anabolic steroids are synthetic derivatives of the naturally occurring male anabolic hormone testosterone[4]

 Testosterone helps the body retain protein which helps develop muscles. This is the anabolic effect.  The androgenic effect triggers the maturing of the male reproductive system including deepening of the voice and the growth of body hair.  Athletes take steroids to increase muscle mass and strength-- the anabolic effects.

 Steroids are either injected or taken orally.  Injected steroids are categorized into long-lasting and those lasting a much shorter time.  In most recent years, athletes have preferred the shorter-lasting and water-soluble injections.[4]

 Side Effects of Steroid Use

 Even with prescribed does of steroids, there are many side effects, not only physically, but emotionally and behaviorally as well.  Some athletes engage in a practice of a combination of different steroids, called megadosing or stacking.  The effects can be undetected until great harm or even death occurs and many of the effects are irreversible.[4]

 Injections carry the possibility of contracting Heaptitis B or HIV through shared needle use.  In addition, steroid use dangers may not manifest for many years and therefore, even if the practice is given up, there may be long-term side effects years, even decades, later.[4]

 Physical side effects in men can include:[4]

  • Reduced sperm count
  • Impotence
  • Development of breasts
  • Shrinking of the testicles
  • Difficulty or pain while urinating

 Physical side effects in women can include:[4]

  • Facial hair growth
  • Deepened voice
  • Breast reduction
  • Menstrual cycle changes

 Both genders may experience acne, rapid weight gain, clotting disorders, liver damage, a bloated appearance, elevated cholesterol levels, weakened tendons, and/or premature heart attacks and strokes which could result in death.  In adolescents, steroid use could negatively affect bone growth.[4]

 Emotionally and behaviorally, the use of steroids can cause severe mood swings.  There is some controversy about how much steroid use impacts behaviors.  Some believe people using the drugs can become quite aggressive, commonly called “roid rage.”   They can be depressed and extremely irritable one moment and feel invincible moments later. Scientific research has yet to validate these claims beyond a reasonable doubt.[3]


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Athletes Who Use Steroids

The image of the “98 pound weakling” is etched in the minds of many young boys.  Navigating through adolescence is never easy and adolescent males may look to drugs to create the muscular body they crave.  In addition, the pressures to perform well in sports can influence adolescents to pursue steroid use. 

However, it is not only male athletes who engage in using performance enhancing drugs.  Female athletes are also using the drugs.  It is not hard to remember the media claims of Russian and German female Olympiads using performance enhancing substances as early as the 1960s.  In truth, steroid use in the Olympics happened even before the 1960s.

In 1954 the World Weightlifting Championships spotlighted the success of the Soviet team.  The story goes, the team physician for the U.S. team, John Ziegler, talked to the Soviet team doctor and was told the Soviet team was receiving testosterone injections.[5]  Even before that incident rumors were abound, the Germans used testosterone to prepare for the 1936 games in Berlin. Those rumors indicated the medal winner had used oral ASS, whereas in regards to the Soviets, there were rumors of syringes discarded in their dressing rooms.[5]

Athletes have used various concoctions in the pursuit of winning their sport with little thought to the “fairness” of the practice.  At the 1904 Olympics, the U.S. marathon runner, Thomas Hicks drank brandy laced with cocaine and strychnine.[5]  He had to be revived but he did win the gold medal.  In 1924 sprinters tried to dilate their coronary arteries by using nitroglycerine, but then switched to experimenting with the amphetamine, Benzidrine.[5]

Illegal Steroid Manufacturing/SalesCredit: Photo courtesy of the US Government Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)

Once the ASS drug Dianabol was invented, athletes across the globe rushed to use it in training. The need for new steroids was in full swing. However, in 1968, the World Health Organization complained the pharmaceutical companies were producing too much of the steroids and sending them to third world countries to dispense and giving the doctors kickbacks for prescribing them.[5]  Around this time, the IOCC banned the use of steroids, though not for safety reasons, but for ethical and moral reasons.   In 1991 the U.S. Congress placed ASS of drugs into Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), making it illegal to sale or possess ASS class drugs without a prescription.[3]

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and professional sports leagues such as the Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, National Football League, and National Hockey League have banned the use of steroids. The leagues did this because these drugs are potentially dangerous to the health of the athlete and they give the user unfair advantage in competition.  Since the Mark McGwire incident, the IOC, NCAA, and NFL have also banned the use of steroid precursors such as androstenedione, by athletes for the same reasons.[3] The IOC and professional sports leagues use urine testing to detect steroid use both in and out of competition.  Athletes who test positive are given consequences based on the particular league or governing body’s policies.  It could include short- or long-term suspension to life-time bans of participation in the sport.

Professional Athletes are Tested for Performance Enhancing DrugsCredit: photo by user Vzach

At first the media focus was on the use of performance enhancing drugs during Olympic Games. In more recent years, the professional athletes have come under great scrutiny for steroid use.  In particular baseball and cycling have been prominent in the news for athletes using performance enhancing substances.  The awareness has brought even more scrutiny and most professional sports leagues have tightened their drug testing policies in response.



The copyright of the article Performance Enhancing Substances in Sports is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

Mark McGuire admits use of steroid use.

(Associated Press)