Understanding Performance Enhancing Steroids
A controversial topic in its own right. Mention the word ‘steroids’ to anyone and they’ll likely voice their own firmly held opinions. The pressure to attain a competitive advantage on the rugby pitch (and in countless other sporting arenas) has a fascinating history, which continues to evolve. In some cases, this pressure leads to professional and amateur athletes alike feeling the need to experiment with untried supplements and, in some cases, performance enhancing steroids.
With evidence suggesting that this pressure continues to build, particularly in largely unregulated amateur sports, it’s important to understand exactly what steroids are and how they affect an athlete’s body. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to focus on androgenic anabolic steroids (AAS) – the ones that have a positive influence on performance, often included under the umbrella category of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs).
I want to make it clear from the beginning that I am not a medical professional. I’m not bringing you this information to assist or provide you with any advice on steroid use; I’m simply discussing the topic of steroid use in sport, and in rugby specifically in part 2 and 3 of this series.
Without going into too much detail, we need to simplify what steroids actually are. Firstly, testosterone is a steroid hormone from the androgen group which is primarily secreted from the testes of males and, to a much lesser extent, the ovaries of females. In males, testosterone promotes secondary sexual characteristics such as increased levels of muscle and bone mass. In general, androgens promote protein synthesis and the growth of muscle tissue.
The use of anabolic steroids in professional sport has a lengthy history. One of the most prominent historical incidents was at the 1988 Summer Olympics when Ben Johnson (the famous Canadian sprinter) won the 100m sprint, setting a new world record in the process ahead of the American favourite, Carl Lewis.
It was later revealed that Johnson’s drug test returned positive for anabolic steroids and the gold medal was later given to Lewis. When questioned about the steroid use, Johnson claimed that lots of the sprinters were taking steroids at the time and it wasn’t “cheating” because the wide use of steroids created a level playing field.
After this event, prohibitions of anabolic steroids were strengthened internationally by many sporting organisations. Anabolic steroids were classified as a “controlled substance” by the United States congress in 1990 as part of the “Anabolic Steroid Control Act”. The situation in the UK is relatively similar with organisations taking the same stance on AAS use.
From my perspective, the widespread use of anabolic steroids within sport has become a serious issue over the past 10-20 years with athletes and coaches willing to go to greater lengths to avoid detection.
Despite sporting organisations stepping up the fight to detect drug use in sports, it seems that the science of drug administration has always been one step ahead of detection, with certain drugs becoming continuously more difficult to detect.
So why do athletes take steroids in the first place? Well, in short, they work. They improve the body’s ability to promote growth and strengthen muscle fibres, leading to increased recovery rates and improved physical performance. From an athletic performance perspective, that really is the holy grail – the ability to be bigger, stronger, faster and with super-fast recovery rates. But it comes at a price.
Medical literature has demonstrated negative side effects of steroid use including but not limited to:
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease (including stroke and heart attacks) (1)
- Cancer (potential increased rate of pre-existing tumour growth) (2)
- Other: Acne and oily skin, significant hair loss (3), suppression of spermatogenesis, possibly leading to infertility (4)
The adverse effects of AAS/PEDs have been extensively studied… in a medical context. There are athletes out there that are ignorant of the risks associated with AAS/PEDs and simply use as much as they like with no real consideration of the consequences.
The extent of these consequences depends not only on the drug strain, dosage and frequency but also the individual athlete. At this moment in time, there is no clear-cut conclusion about the safety of steroid use in sport. Researchers claim that it’s difficult to see how this might be achieved, even as technology develops over time, due to the complications in research methods, logistics and with the athletes themselves.
So with all the uncertainties surrounding the use of AAS on top of the well-known side effects, why do athletes continue to use these controversial drugs? It all really comes down to one thing – the pressure to succeed.
That brings Part 1 of Steroid Use in Rugby to an end from our guest writer, Dean. Stay tuned for Part 2, which delves further into the sources of pressure experienced by amateur and professional rugby players to use performance enhancing steroids.
What’s your initial reaction? Do you agree with AAS use in rugby? Do you have any personal experiences or opinions that you’re keen to share with our readers? Leave a comment below or head over to our Facebook or Twitter page to join the discussion.
- Finkle WD, Greenland S, Ridgeway GK, Adams JL, Frasco MA, Cook MB, Fraumeni JF, Hoover RN (January 2014). “Increased Risk of Non-Fatal Myocardial Infraction Following Testosterone Therapy Prescription in Men” (PDF) PLOS ONE 9 (1): e85805
- Pastuszak AW, Peralman AM, Lai WS, Gody G, Sathyamoorthy K, Lie JS, Miles BJ, Lipshultz LI, Khera M (August 2013. “Testosterone Replacement Therapy in Patients with Prostate Cancer After Radical Prostatectomy”. The Journal of Urology 190 (2): 639-44.
- “Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety” – Adverse Effects of Testosterone Replacement Therapy: An Update on the Evidence and Controversy, October 2014.
- “Contraceptive Efficacy of Testosterone-Induced Azoospermia in Normal Men. World Health Organization Task Force on Methods for the Regulation of Male Fertility”. Lancet 336 (8721): 955-9. Oct 1990.