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The History of Anabolic Steroids
By Joe Pietaro
Adolf Hitler deservingly takes the blame for many evils in the twentieth century; there’s certainly no doubt about that. But a strong possibility exists that the psychotic leader of Nazi Germany himself was a pioneer testosterone user and made sure that his soldiers did the same to keep up their aggression and stamina on the battlefield.
Although the hormone was used during and immediately after the Second World War (to treat the sick and injured), the truth is that the previous decade is the one where anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS) were first synthesized by chemists.
1930s – FIRST SIGHTINGS
Perfecting experimentation that began in the late 1800s, the prohormone and testosterone precursor androstenedione was synthesized in 1938. Although it was recognized by the Health Organization of the League of Nations as a performance enhancer, it would be nearly 60 years before ‘andro’ became part of the lexicon when St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs during the summer of 1998 using it (and possibly more) in a supplement form.
German scientists throughout the 1930s worked to perfect the hormone and were part of a contingent that first officially used the name ‘testosterone’ in a 1935 paper entitled “On Crystalline Male Hormone from Testicles (Testosterone).” There was speculation that some German athletes competing in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin were using testosterone.
In the United States, the first mention of testosterone propionate came in a 1938 issue of “Strength and Health” magazine, at the time the top weightlifting and bodybuilding publication.
1940s – FALLOUT FROM WAR
As the world recovered from six years of agonizing war, anabolic steroids and their use increased on both sides of the Iron Curtain. According to “Muscle – Smoke and Mirrors, Volume One,” an exhausting research of the Iron Game by Randy Roach, both Russian and American governmental agencies obtained intelligence from the Nazi underground. One part of this was research data from the use of steroids.
As the years passed, pharmaceutical companies in America received some of this information and looked for different subjects to use the drugs on by the next decade.
1950s – KEEPIN’ UP WITH THE JONESES
Russian weightlifters began to have much greater success in the international playing field and before too long that was evened out. John Ziegler, a World War II veteran who became a physician but also considered himself a scientist, began receiving testosterone (and research records from Nazi Germany) from CIBA Pharmaceuticals.
Ziegler became acquainted with some of the United States Olympic Weightlifting team from the York Barbell Company in Pennsylvania. He figured that if the drugs could help the sick and malnourished, it might do wonders for healthy athletes.
John Grimek, York’s ‘golden boy,’ began receiving experimental injections from Ziegler in 1954. Grimek reportedly did not see any gains after six weeks and gave up on them. That same year, Ziegler accompanied the team to the World Weightlifting Championships in Vienna. “Ziegler talked about how the Russian doctor, ‘after a few drinks,’ revealed that ‘some members of his team were using testosterone and ‘abusing the drugs heavily,’” according to the book “Muscletown, U.S.A.” by John D. Fair. This is generally viewed as the springboard of AAS in America. How accurate the story is remains to be seen due to the reports of at least sporadic use prior to that.
“CIBA managed to minimize, but not totally eliminate, the androgenic (secondary male sexual) aspects, while maintaining the anabolic edge,” wrote Roach. The drug methandrostenolone was marketed in pill form as Dianabol and was approved for use by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 1958 for medicinal purposes to treat the elderly and burn victims. Once again, the question was asked about what it could do in the athletic field.
The York lifters were again recruited to try the drugs but did not view them as performance-enhancers at the time. “I thought it was just another vitamin,” Bill March said in an October 2005 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I didn’t know what they were. He (Ziegler) needed a guinea pig. I was gung-ho at the time and said ‘sure.’ I would have done anything [that] they told me. I just wanted a better physique.”
Most of the lifters noticed improvements in their performances but once again Grimek was not one of them. “Sorry to report, no change, no improvement, no nothing…if anything, I’m worse,” he wrote to Ziegler after adhering to a cycle of no more than 15 milligrams per day for six weeks, miniscule in comparison to today’s standards.
As the Cold War intensified, so did the competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. And the turbulent 60s proved to be the perfect time period for the use of anabolic steroids to become commonplace in the bodybuilding community.
1960s – FREE SPIRITED TIMES FOR ALL
This decade was the turning point of bodybuilding as it was known into the steroid-induced sport it was to become. California – and the original Muscle Beach in Santa Monica – had become popular during the 50s as aspiring men and women fled to the west coast.
As the lines were drawn in the sand between Bob Hoffman in York and Joe Weider’s representatives in California, the separation of weightlifting and bodybuilding was never wider. The so-called “Golden Era” of bodybuilding began in 1965 with the first Mr. Olympia taking place and the famous gyms owned by Vince Gironda and Joe Gold packed to the gills with the future of the sport.
As Roach put it, “At the beginning of the decade, protein was still number one on the bodybuilder’s checklist, but it would soon drop to the number two position as the sport began to shift into anabolic overdrive.”
How much Weider and Hoffman knew about the drug use is a much-debated issue. There was no way that they were completely in the dark, judging by the sheer size and strength that both bodybuilders and weightlifters were able to obtain. But it certainly didn’t hurt their respective businesses by advertising equipment and supplements using models with immense muscles. Turning the proverbial blind eye on the situation would seem to be the case. This, in a strange twist, became a similar argument amongst the baseball purists that the game’s hierarchy did nothing to stop the growth of performance-enhancing drugs due to the rising popularity after shaking off the effects on the 1994 strike.
1970s – TAKING OFF
With the addition of some big names like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu on the scene, bodybuilding started growing in the mainstream. Although the men of this era did use steroids in moderation, it would pale in comparison to today’s standards.
“There’s a place for drugs, but not drug abuse,” said Frank Zane, who won three consecutive Mr. Olympias in the late 1970s at 180 pounds. 1982 Mr. Olympia winner Chris Dickerson added, “Steroids have a place, that’s why I would like to see some more research done.”
Robby Robinson was one of the original “Pumping Iron” crew and said that he never used steroids until moving from Florida to California in 1975. “I’ve never used a lot of drugs,” he said. “I [used them] only in preparation for a show…eight weeks before, every two weeks. I practiced that until I retired.” Robinson won the Mr. Universe, Mr. World, Mr. America, Night of the Champions and Masters Olympia titles in a career that spanned four decades.
In 1976, the International Olympic Committee placed anabolic steroids on the banned substance list. It was apparent that the drugs were not just in the gyms but also the arenas, fields and stadiums, as well. The public was starting to take notice of these substances but it was just the beginning.
1980s – THE FITNESS CRAZE
As the smoke cleared from the 70s, the population began taking fitness seriously. Health clubs sprang up to accept the men and women who may have been intimidated by the dingy hardcore gyms and the supplement industry widened. In addition, so did the use of AAS.
In 1981, a man named Dan Duchaine released “The Original Underground Steroid Handbook for Men and Women.” This low-budget pamphlet was circulated all throughout California and further, giving the indication that there were a lot of interested parties out there.
“We know that this book will make us a lot of enemies just because we address the topic of steroid usage in a realistic manner,” Duchaine wrote. “Although we’ll antagonize many of you, we thought that someone should tell the truth about steroids. Hypocrisy about steroid usage is harmless but evasiveness, lies and secrets aren’t.”
Duchaine, who later became known as ‘The Guru,’ released this book (written in a very light-hearted manner) to inform adults who have already made a conscious decision to use AAS. He encourages the reader to involve doctors and blood tests, as well as descriptions of individual types of steroids. “Don’t think that we are giving you directions or how-to’s,” Duchaine added. “We don’t know you. We haven’t any idea how your body can handle spicy food let alone prescription drugs. For all we know, you may be crazy, too. So there’s no advice that we can give you, only information.”
Bodybuilders grew even larger and they were far from the only ones using these substances. Believe it or not, things came to a head after a sprinter was found guilty of using stanozolol, commonly known as winstrol.
Ben Johnson of Canada won the gold medal in the 100-meter and set a new record in the process with a 9.79 seconds time. Three days later, he was disqualified after a urinalysis. On the grandest of stages, steroid use was being thrown into everyone’s face worldwide and it seemed even worse when Johnson claimed that he was only taking the substance to counter all of his competitor’s own use.
1990s – LAW AND ORDER
Despite the media reports calling the use of anabolic steroids a “silent epidemic,” the reaction was anything but. Black market steroid sales and use resulted in more arrests and prosecutions than ever, spurring on congressional hearings that occurred from 1988 to 1990. Although the vast majority of witnesses who testified – including many medical professionals and members of the FDA, Drug Enforcement Agency, American Medical Association and the National Institute on Drug Abuse – recommended against it, Congress signed into law an amendment adding anabolic steroids as a Schedule III controlled substance.
On November 29, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the Omnibus Crime Control Bill, thus making the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990 part of the country’s law. They were now in the same legal class as opium, morphine, amphetamines and methamphetamines.
While that may have had some kind of effect on the use of steroids, it hardly eliminated it. In 1992, Dorian Yates of Great Britain won the first of his six consecutive Mr. Olympias. At 5’10” and 270 pounds on stage (300 during the offseason), the man known as ‘The Shadow’ was an inch shorter yet nearly 50 pounds heavier than his predecessor, Lee Haney.
The judges were rewarding muscle mass as opposed to symmetry, aesthetics and proportion. If there were any doubt of that, Yates’ successor Ronnie Coleman cemented the theory. Also at 5’10”, he tipped the scales at 330 pounds in the offseason and competed as high as 298 pounds in matching Haney’s record of eight straight Sandows.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” said Haney. “We had smaller waistlines, we were more sleek with our physiques. Now they’re so much bigger, more massive. I feel that a type of symmetry was lost then (with Yates winning).”
“There’s a massive overload of drugs and they pack on the weight,” said Zane. “It’s an assembly line physique.”
The summer of 1998 also became one of importance as far as PEDs are concerned. Although both McGwire and Sammy Sosa have never been proven guilty of using steroids, both became guilty in the court of public opinion years after they rejuvenated a dying National Pastime and broke Roger Maris’ mark of 61 home runs in a single season.
THE NEW MILLENNIUM – STEROIDS GO HOLLYWOOD
Baseball may be still going through a steroid scandal that seems to grow every day but that didn’t frighten off another class of millionaires. Celebrities far and wide turned to anti-aging remedies to recapture their youth and, in some cases, look better in their 40s or above than they did in their 20s.
Sylvester Stallone, 61, was always physically fit and the rumors of his PED use apparently came true when he was charged with illegal possession of human growth hormone and testosterone undecanoate in Australia in 2007.
The music industry wasn’t exempt from this, either. An 2008 investigation by the Albany County’s District Attorney’s Office implicated a slew of stars from the hip hop industry as recipients of both steroids and HGH from doctors who prescribed the drugs for non-medicinal purposes. 50 Cent, Mary J. Blige, Wyclef Jean and Timbaland were a few of the names that appeared in the report.
Rumors persist about many others in the spotlight that have gone the way of Hormone Replacement Therapy and having their high-paid doctors sign off on ‘legal’ doses of the same substances that bodybuilders and baseball players get raked over the coals for taking.
Androstenedione, the prohormone that McGwire claimed he was using when he hit 70 home runs, was one of 26 substances that were signed into law on the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004. Not only were the so-called ‘hardcore’ steroids illegal, but also some of the supplements that were being sold at your local GNC. The government is obviously taking the elimination of any performance enhancer pretty serious.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
With so much attention on PEDs, especially in baseball with the Mitchell Report and multiple congressional hearings, it appears that the black market is going to be the one with the most to gain. Individuals who decide to use these substances will not have many alternatives, especially with these once over-the-counter precursors being banned.
Throughout the history of anabolic steroids, a lot has been learned on what these drugs can and cannot do. There is still a place for them in the medical community and – in some people’s minds – athletics, as well. The obvious is sometimes ignored – that even the thought of using PEDs should not occur until one is an adult.
That is the one common denominator in both the opponents and proponents of steroids. Both camps can do themselves a little justice by becoming more educated on the subject.
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