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Making Of The Chemical Athlete

May 13, 2003 16:06 IST

The recent, shameful exposé of a band of Indian athletes "caught in the act" for using performance-enhancing drugs is just the tip of the iceberg. A wittingly, or unwittingly, enacted "fall-out" of what made anabolic steroids, and the Ben Johnsons, household "exemplars," and earned the wrath of the denizens who control sports and/or the Olympic movement...

Ben JohnsonThat's not all. On the other side of the spectrum, "Golden Girl" Flo Jo fell a victim to the steroidal panache, just as much as sporting nobles like Carl Lewis became "tainted" with drug allegations, and every sport meet had its own share of "drug-abuse" skeletons in the cupboard… All the same, the chemical athlete of today has often been snared by stringent drug testing devices -- now in use, worldwide. But, life, of course, is a basic reality -- of which everything else is a form of manifestation, including the doping phenomenon, and its effects on the human body. Hence, every possible "remedy" to curtail it seems to be worse than the malady per se. An update.

First, the basics. An anabolic steroid is a substance that aims at promoting tissue growth, especially through stimulation of cellular protein -- its production, to be precise. And, while each type of steroid used exerts its peculiar effects in the body, athletes almost, as a norm, use those with chemical structures akin to the chief male hormone, testosterone. Also, steroids, without doubt, have masculinising, or androgenic, action/s. This is precisely the reason why they are, sometimes, labelled as androgenic-anabolic steroids.

The use of synthetic derivatives of testosterone dates back to the post-World War II sports scenario, when they were first "employed" by a handful of weightlifters and bodybuilders. Things came to a head when over a dozen athletes were disqualified during the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela, for using anabolic steroids before the competition. It became clear, thereafter, that the menacing influence of drugs was not ethnic to sportspersons of the erstwhile Soviet-bloc countries. What's more, it was also the first time a very sensitive analytical technique was used to determine and screen the athletes' urine sample/s for the presence of steroids, whose use was, covertly or overtly, resorted to improving muscular size, strength, endurance, and sports performance.

Now -- a bit of history. A whole new world of experimentation with anabolic steroids, by sportspersons, began with the advent of oral steroids, in 1958. Awakened by economic prospects, and with the view of making them more effective, drug manufactures altered the steroid molecules so that they would not meet with rapid doom when they passed through the liver. It has now been well established that this grand design in steroidal composition is associated with one of the most serious of side-effects -- liver disease; most likely, cancer.

The most colourful effect of steroid use is its virilising purport -- with the availability of a varied range of drugs with minimal masculinising side-effects. Yet, it goes without saying that most athletes reckon that the androgenic effects, whatever their impact, are a sine qua non for elevating aggression levels -- levels that promote continued and strenuous training, scientific, biomechanical, or call it by any other name. And, you have it all well laid out: the purpose of inculcating a definitive advantage -- or, extra force for limb movements. However, controversy dogs the power and effectiveness of steroidal use in male athletes, what with their inherently adequate levels of testosterone.

Sport, in recent years, has been nothing short of an industry. And, while champion material is being tapped in schools, so has drug power. It is also evident that coaches and trainers either recommend, or administer, drugs to their wards with the hope of fulfilling their fond dreams; they may even help them "customise" a number of steroidal regimens too. In combination, or otherwise. While transgression of dosage schedules are not uncommon, athletes have always prayed that a specific steroidal diet would only cause less harmful side-effects, and maximum effect on field performance. The equation is, however, not so simplistic.

While weightlifters have cyclical steroidal dosages, in combination with hormones, such as thyroid, to speed up metabolism, reduce appetite, and fat deposits under the skin, athletes have used a host of fanciful drugs experimentally, and carelessly. Some examples: the growth hormone extracted from human cadavers; HCG; grand doses of vitamins and minerals; bee pollen; amino acids; and, anything that holds promise to improving the levels of athletic competitiveness. The adage? More, the merrier. The sermon? Side-effects, if any, would be reversible upon cessation of drug [ab]use.

Each time an athlete takes a drug, which has no relevance to any form of ethical therapy, it changes his/her ability to function normally. While some drugs increase alertness and performance, others are relaxing and relieve high levels of arousal and tension/stress. All this, of course, depends on the "drug culture," the athlete, in question, is asked to follow.

To dwell on the exact chemistry of the steroidal habit. The natural rate of secretion of testosterone in men is about 10 mg per day; it is 0.26 mg in women. In reality, however, athletes take a total of 400-450 mg of different drugs, per day, in combined dosages, which may sometimes be higher in certain cases. The inference is obvious: enormous stress on the human system in balancing an unnatural act of human chicanery, or "enterprise."

Drug Testing Sporting glories have been underscored by one ritual from time immemorial: "Evil, be thou my good." And, methods to boost performance are not a modern-day saga. Just ponder over the fact that human nature is unchanging, and you'd be astounded to know that the noble Greeks were not averse to a little "cheating." Phylostratos and Galen, two great physicians of ancient Greece, contended that sportsmen, at the height of Greek magnificence, used many dietary methods to improve performance, including a novel, culinary idea, or a "miracle" -- eating sheep's testicles!

Today, it is all high-tech: a complex, super-specialised smorgasbord of "designer" drugs. Understandably, it is impossible to forecast which sportsperson might experience a given harmful side-effect of steroidal usage. The gamble is also risky, but athletes, and others, given the spectacular hold of the dough in sport, and human culpability, are prepared to swap it for the coveted gold, and also fame and wealth success would bring to one's doorstep. The winning edge, in sport, is of supreme importance, after all -- not the illegal, or unethical, side of dope.

Drugs are universal in their implications. However, drug tests are mainly administered at key competitions. Manipulating drug doses is, therefore, easy, because dates of major meets are always known in advance. Yet, the best way to stall the redundant use of drugs would be to spend a fortune in conducting spot checks at random, at any time of the year -- and, by surprise -- not just during, or before, an event. Some element of Hitchcockian suspense, after all, may help, even if the system would not be foolproof. Nothing is.

"Errors," wrote John Dryden, "like straws, upon the surface flow; He who would search for pearls must dive below." Sadly, a "drug-free" athletic world, in the present dispensation, is not only impossible, but also unachievable.


The Lure Of Drugs

It's universally conceded that anabolic steroids are used by nearly all national and international athletes in a world dominated by muscularity and strength. Because, drugs have a positive effect in stimulating red blood cell formation, some runners and sprinters use them in the belief that a greater number of red cells will cause greater delivery of oxygen to the working muscles. Many athletes also believe that they cannot hope to compete favourably at high levels of competition without using drugs; athletes who would not ordinarily use drugs feel compelled to using them because they believe that they are at a serious disadvantage... if they are among "drug-free" competitors. Curiously, some athletes, who have been on drugs, have gone home free of blame; a few have been "caught" for no blemish, and then restored of their pride and medal.

There are athletes who take up to 1,000-2,000 mg of steroids per day, including amphetamines to help speed up metabolism... influenced by the current fad in the athletic world... That the most dangerous side-effects of overdoses are evident; and, so are the testimonials citing 30-lb body weight gain, tremendous improvement in strength, marked increase in stamina, and "personal bests" in sports performance. Yet, tumour development usually occurs over many years of use, as also shrunken testicles, low sperm count, infertility, baldness, loss of hair, irregular menses, and so on. The other effects often include hypertension, violent mood swings, even psychosis, loss of appetite, muscle cramps, vomiting, nosebleed, vertigo, headaches etc., The list is endless.

Inconsistency, however, dogs scientific and medical studies. Also, problems associated with drug abuse typically disappear after the stoppage of steroidal use. But, what is really amazing is the various modes of usage of anabolic steroids. It is quite remarkable, and somewhat terrifying, when one considers the wild experimentation that athletes often indulge themselves with/in. A majority of steroids used by athletes comes from underground sources -- unscrupulous pharmacists, drug supply houses, athletes who bring drugs back from foreign countries, vets, and several others. Most physicians abhor the use of steroids by healthy athletes, or persons -- not steroidal doctors, who, because of the lure of the lucre, or a "sincere" belief, argue that they can monitor the usage of drugs -- for quicker and better results. Faster. Higher. Stronger.


Ephedrine: Potency Magnified?

A naturally occurring substance found in plants of the genus, Ephedra, ephedrine has been used for thousands of years as a decongestant, and energy tonic. Oriental medicine too has used the substance, down the ages, and testifies for its incredible, completely natural, effects. Ever since it began to sport the mantle of bodybuilding's hottest new supplement, the sales pitch has been intense. Yet, one inescapable fact remains. For all its real benefits, ephedrine is, doubtless, a potent drug that may have serious, even fatal, consequences in some predisposed, or unsuspecting, individuals.

Athletes have developed a fancy for ephedrine. Because -- it helps one become stronger, have more energy for the next workout, and the next. It also helps one energise one's entire day, cuts on one's appetite, and, most importantly, reduces body fat. All without allowing one to lose any muscle mass. Ephedrine's safety record is quite impressive, too. In addition to its use as a recreational drug, or precursor of metamphetamine, ephedrine is rapidly gaining popularity both as an ergogenic that enhances strength, energy and endurance, and as a lipolytic that promotes fat loss while sparing lean body mass. This also makes it a popular weight-loss agent.

Research and scientific evidence indicates that ephedrine not only increases fat utilisation, but also spares muscle mass and maintains metabolic rate. This is all fair and dandy, but for individuals with underlying heart/cardiovascular disease, taking ephedrine may not be safe.

However, for all practical purposes, ephedrine could be thought as a cross betwixt adrenaline, one of the body's primary "fight or flight" hormones, and metamphetamine, an extremely puissant synthetic, stimulating drug. Aside from this, ephedrine, in lower amounts, has many of the same biological responses, as do adrenaline and metamphetamine; in higher doses, ephedrine produces almost all the adverse effects, albeit many users and proponents take comfort in the fact that the substance is an "herbal" product. Nothing, after all, is risk-free.

More Than Test[osterone] Drive

Though it may sound like a gastronomic sizzler named after a mythical god or legend, testosterone restores one's sexual drive/urge. It boosts muscle mass. Soon, one could get it as a gel… at the local chemist. What next? Something wackier. But, one thing is certain. It'll always remain dangerous.

What it does: helps concentration, and maybe memory; deepens voice at puberty; elevates lean muscle mass; cuts down on body fat; increases libido; stimulates hair growth; triggers normal development of male sex organ; and, increases bone density and growth.

How it is administered: IM injections, every week to 30 days; dose: 100 mg to 300 mg; patches on scrotal tissue, back, abdomen/thigh, on a daily dose of 4 mg to 6 mg; gel, 10 mg to 40 mg; on hairless skin, a few times a day; and, pill, 40 mg to 80 mg, by mouth.

  Banned Drugs... At The Olympics

1. Beta-blocker, an OTC drug, which calms nerves and steadies hands, in events such as archery and fencing

2. Blood-doping, which improves oxygen supply and endurance, in track and field [T&F] events

3. Diuretics, which reduce weight, in weightlifting and judo

4. EPO [Erythropoietin], which increases RBC production, in cycling, tennis, and running

5. Human Growth Hormone, which builds muscle size and strength, in swimming and T&F

6. Insulin-like Growth Factor I, which increases muscle mass and reduces body fat, in swimming, and T&F

7. Steroids [Testosterone], which accelerate muscle growth and intense training, in T&F, and swimming


The Indian Angle

Some Indian athletes, who were in the eye of the drug storm, lately, have been at the wrong side of the fence -- for several years. Drug use is an accepted fact; not a fact accepted by both athletes and coaches. However, monitoring drug indulgence has been as good as athletic standards. While a few coaches have been known to place their wards on a drug diet, with or without supervision, or knowledge of drug action, side-effects etc., so that the latter derive that extra "edge" over competitors, the overall results have been nothing but spectacular. Most Indian athletes have been found wanting on the international arena -- presenting a sorry image, drug or no drug. What's more, we all know how many of our athletes have failed drug tests -- in every major competition, as it were… But, one thing is imminent. Drug abuse is widespread; and, that is it.

A case in point: the blatant, indiscriminate use of drugs came to the fore at a national meet, some years ago, when an intrepid reporter, armed with a photographer, took actual pictures of used syringes, ampoules and several other "paraphernalia," strewn all over the "backyard" of the playing fields, without a care in the world. The pictures clinched the issue much better than a thousand words put together.

Result: nothing ever happened -- and, all was quiet. The only difference today is the emergence of "sophistication" in our athletes' drug usage patterns -- not the rudimentary "slant" of the example cited.                                          


Rajgopal Nidamboor