They’ve been called a lot of things: the juice, the sauce, D-bol, roids, doping. The polite world likes to call them performance enhancing drugs. I weighed 178 lbs when I started playing rugby. I was 20 years old, and too slow and too short to play anywhere but in the front row.
Up there, I soon learned that I wanted to be as strong as possible. I wanted to dominate my opposition, or, at the least, not let the opposite happen.
I became enthralled with weight lifting – the heavier, the better. My goal was to bench press 350 lbs. In the weight-room (primitive in those days), I met some very strong lifters. That’s when I first heard about steroids.
Rumours abounded – that the new body-building phenom from Austria, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and most other big-name muscle-men used them. My friend and I drove to Mexico and bought some Dianabol; I took it for two weeks, and added 40 lbs to my bench press in 1 month, hitting the magic 350.
Public denials in all sports were the order of the day, and no one much cared what the truth was. Soon we started hearing about American gridiron players using, about the Eastern Bloc women, about the shotput and hammer throwers. It spread and grew.
Wherever fame, money, power, and/or narcissism influenced a sport and/or its players, steroids and their cousins lurked around the fringes and, in some cases, cut tracks right through the middle. American gridiron saw a lot of steroid use in the 1960s and 70s, and probably still does.
Steroid use was called The Edge. In a big money professional game, built on size, strength, and violent contact, having “an edge” on your competition was important if you wanted to earn the big dollars, if you wanted to keep your job. And your competition wasn’t just the other team on Saturday or Sunday, but also younger, faster, stronger players trying to take your spot on your team.
In those days it was a crude practice – changing room syringes, pills from Mexico or East Germany, cooperative doctors, closed-mouth team owners and managers.
Steroid use became a form of job protection, of economic survival in the ruthless crucible of cut-throat big business masquerading as sport.
Then people started dying – heart attacks, liver cancer, cerebral bleeds. That didn’t stop the use, but it brought it a lot of unwanted attention. Testing, then more testing, then a lot of political posturing, some enforcement, education, more policing, more enforcement, more findings, bans, more doping, and so on, and so forth.
Eastern athletes exposed, Ben Johnson stripped of gold, and sometimes it seemed that the floodgates of truth would open. But it hasn’t changed. Wherever money is on the table, whenever performance can be peddled for fame and influence and power and riches, there will always be someone looking for and exploiting The Edge.
Those of us who wake in the morning thinking about how things are going with our favourite rugby teams and rugby players, who pore over the sporting news for rugby bits, who remember individual touches of the ball, who still feel the grains of mud under our eyelids and the water squirting out our bootlace holes, who can hear the forehead hitting the sternum as we close our eyes for sleep, we are worried.
Relatively few incidents of drug use have been revealed in rugby. But no one who really pays attention to this scourge, this plague in professional sports, no one who can see how well steroids’ distortions-from-normal give short-term advantage to certain styles of rugby positional play, can doubt the high level of risk that our game is in to contamination from this array of poisons, and from the deceptions and dangers that go with them.
Personally, I firmly believe they are far more widespread than any testing regime in rugby has shown. I am suspicious that teams, even national test teams, have ignored, if not actually encouraged, their use.
There are individual players whose body size, muscle bulk, and emotionally-unbalanced aggression indicate something at work other than passion for the game and for fair but unbridled competitive play.
What evidence do I have that would hold up in a court? None. Why am I suspicious? I’ve been an athlete for 50 years. I’ve been attached to rugby for 45 of those years. I’ve watched, and taken some sincere interest, in all major international sports and many minor ones.
I spent many years in weight rooms and on training fields. I have more than a layman’s knowledge of diet, nutrition, cell physiology, exercise physiology, and human psychology. I think I have a pretty good idea of what’s normal, what the range or spectrum of normal includes, and what falls far outside that range. I’m a believer in the dictum: If it looks like duck, smells like a duck, quacks like a duck, and flies like a duck, it’s a duck.
You can’t tell a book by its cover, but that doesn’t mean all appearance is a lie. Carl Lewis was one of the most beautiful athletes of his type to ever grace the human eye. His skills were pristine, his efforts enthralling, his competitiveness and confidence supreme. He was a world-beater. But he was balanced – he was mentally sharp at all times, fully conversant, in control, and his physique matched his events and his accomplishments.
Ben Johnson was a physical freak as a sprinter; his biceps and deltoids and pectorals and traps were simply off the charts for a world-class sprinter. There have been heavy-muscled sprinters before – Jesse Owens, Bob Hayes, and a few others. But they generally had other sports for which those muscles were built and used: gridiron, in the case of Owens and Hayes. But Johnson had the cut and bulk and definition that indicates something strange, something wrong. So it was.
We’re starting to see some of these freakish physiques in rugby union. Remember what it takes to build out a 6’4” frame with 240lbs of muscle and virtually no fat.
Remember that, along with Superman muscularity, one of the attributes of anabolic steroid (and their cousins) use is selective fat metabolism, resulting in the cut-and-slash definition typical of body-builders, and now visible in the Web-based shirtless photos of some highly touted – and highly paid – rugby players. When you compare these photos with those of body-builders in the early steroid days, there’s not a lot of difference.
Another dangerous effect of these drugs is the altered psychology and emotions they create – sometimes savage aggression that can spill over into life off the pitch, and even against team-mates and family, and sometimes moody depression or distancing from normal interpersonal interaction.
What is the status of testing today? Is it rigorous? Is it “blind?” Is it truly random and unannounced? Is it horizontally and vertically uniform, i.e. across borders, and up and down the grades? Is it timely relative to the season and to impending contests?
Why have testing if it’s ineffectual and pointlessly applied? Why not just remove the chemical rules rather than immerse the sport in hypocrisy?
Is the sport just a gladiatorial spectacle for money and the masses, with behind-the-scenes obfuscation the standard of practice? Or is it a disciplined cultural tradition that teaches young citizens to be adults, to be good people, to be perseverance and strong, and to be faithful and reliable to their fellows?