Steroid use in rugby: Part 2

Steroids and the Pressure to Succeed in Rugby

Before getting started, check out Steroid Use in Rugby: Part 1 if you’d like to get a better understanding of performance enhancing steroids.


The Goldman Dilemma asks elite level athletes this question: If there was a “magic pill” that would guarantee you a gold medal but would lead to your death 5 years later, would you take it? When this question is asked, over half of all athletes say YES! It’s astounding to think that athletes would go to these lengths to achieve their sport’s highest honour.

Whilst steroids may not be the magic pill, they are pretty much the closest thing athletes possess for the chance to become the best they can be. With this in mind, it’s no wonder so many athletes turn to drug use in the hope of success.

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If we look at the evolution of contact sports over the past 20 years, “athletes” have gone from looking athletic and performing at a high level to looking like bodybuilders with ultra-low body fat levels and continually performing better and better each year.

I have to do it to avoid being left behind

So let’s analyse a young, upcoming rugby player and his mentality towards training. He’s a talented young lad who works hard but he hears about how he’s too small and needs to “bulk up” over the off-season in order to get a place in the squad. His teammates are telling him that the easiest way to do this is to start taking steroids.

What are the chances this player will feel pressured to take the controversial drug, hoping for a place on the team? It’s more than likely, especially if everyone around him is doing it. It’s the same in every sport – peer pressure is rife! It’s too easy to fall into the all too common mentality, “I have to do it in order to avoid being left behind”. Take Sam Chalmers’ (2013 Scotland U20 squad member) experience with doping as an example.

Steroids in professional rugby

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how drugs are becoming more and more prominent in rugby. Some coaches strongly refute the claims whereas others, as recently as 2015, openly discuss the apparent problem. RFU Boss Ian Ritchie stated, “Whichever way you look at it; I think there is recognition that there is a problem”.

The Daily Mail anonymously spoke to an international coach who stated it was “naive to think that the problem is limited to young players trying to make the cut to professional ranks”. The fact that professional rugby players are by far the biggest, strongest and best performing athletes may lend support to this statement as consistent performance-enhancing drug use would obviously promote their athletic ability too. The same coach actually resigned due to his “disgust at the scale of drug taking” at a professional level.

Players are being told to bulk up, and it’s being spelled out to them in no uncertain terms that the way to bulk up is to take drugs.

Former France and Harlequins prop Laurent Benezech has also voiced his opinion on the use of drugs in rugby after he compared it to cycling. He claimed it was just as widespread and stated that “players are being told to bulk up, and it’s being spelled out for them in no uncertain terms that the way to bulk up is to take drugs”.

That, in addition to the fact that the average weight of an international player today is more than 2 stone heavier than when rugby became a professional sport in 1995, supports the claim that drug (and unapproved supplement) use is a potential factor.

Whilst some people may turn to advances in technology, sport science and supplements to explain the average weight increase, it would be naive to suggest there is no foul play whatsoever.

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A natural bodybuilder for example (whose sole goal is building muscle each year) will maximally achieve a small increase of around 2-4kg in body weight, whereas a competitive athlete with many variables to focus on including strength, speed, power, endurance and muscle size can achieve a huge increase in muscle and body mass each year. It certainly begs the question – how can it be done without the use of drugs?

Whether you see drug use in sport as a good thing or a bad thing is up to you, but you cannot deny its presence. There is a current trend towards younger athletes turning to drugs in order to fulfil the performance demand that will only become greater over time.

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Again, take Sam Chalmers as an example (see above video). Chalmers tested positive for 2 types of anabolic steroids at a Scotland Under 20 training camp in 2013. He was told that he had the skills but was under pressure to become bigger and stronger from coaches, so he turned to the steroids that his “friends were taking”. Due to the fact most drug tests are random, it’s certain that some athletes will be caught and others will slip through the cracks. Unless drug testing becomes a mandatory element in all sports for all athletes, it’s clear to me that it will continue.

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It’s certain that some athletes will be caught and others will slip through the cracks

Unless rugby becomes a sport where it is accepted that the demands require the use of performance-enhancing drugs, athletes will continue to cheat the system. I actually believe it will only worsen as the technology to catch drug “cheats” advances.

I will finish by saying that steroid use is not an easy topic to talk about, let alone write about. People have such strongly formed opinions on them that someone can quickly become part of a specific pro/anti-steroid camp. That’s why I have written this article from purely an informative point of view in order to provide some evidence and discuss an ever-evolving topic and issue in sport.

Put simply, we need to accept that there are associated risks with performance-enhancing drug use and the education of these risks must be better delivered to athletes and their coaches, especially at a younger age.

Dean Robertson is the owner of Elysium Training Systems Ltd. An Edinburgh-based personal training company which aims to open a training facility designed to educate and change the way that the health and fitness industry operates. You can find Elysium Personal Training on social media including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Alternatively, you can contact Dean directly at elysiumpt@outlook.com.

References:

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. “Therapeutic Advances in Drug Safety” – Adverse Effects of Testosterone Replacement Therapy: An Update on the Evidence and Controversy, October 2014.
  4. “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.
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