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Steroid Use: Hitting Closer to Home

Olympic scandals spotlight performance-enhancing drugs as number of kids using them grows.

Younger and Younger Kids Use Performance-Enhancing Drugs continued...

"What is a concern is the predictable, long-term masculinization of girls and women," Yesalis says.

"There is a serious health issue," Farnaz Khadem, spokeswoman for the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency, tells WebMD. "The use of performance-enhancing products is happening earlier and earlier. And a lot of these young people have no idea of what this is doing to their bodies. This is a real health danger."

Why are kids doing it? Some want to improve athletic performance. But many just want to look more like those slender, muscular people they see in movies and in magazine ads, says William Roberts, MD, president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

"There are a lot of kids at a high school level using steroids to increase performance, but a lot of them are just trying to look better," Roberts tells WebMD.

And where would kids get the idea that this is OK?

"It is not just a young person thing," Roberts says. "Look at all the plastic surgeons who are doing well. All kinds of people are nipping that and tucking this and getting implants to make their calves look better. A lot of people are dissatisfied with the way they are. Chemicals are one way to change that. Away from athletics, you see that going on everywhere."

How Widespread Is Doping?

Some say the performance-enhancing drug use is widespread throughout professional sports and elite athletic competitions. The recent allegations in the ongoing BALCO scandal (involving charges against four of America's most-beloved track-and-field stars) are just the tip of the iceberg, Yesalis says.

"This canard that there are only a few bad apples in the barrel is a subterfuge perpetrated by sports organizations. I've always argued that in many sports there are only a few good apples, and that the majority of athletes do drugs," he says. "Doping in sport is as big a secret as the army Jeep is a secret weapon. Anybody in sports knows about it. It has been epidemic since the last quarter of the 19th century. It is not debatable, it is a fact: Drug use cuts across all sports."

Others maintain that it's a relatively small number cheaters who give sports a bad name.

"Our view on that is the vast majority of athletes are clean," Khadem says. "It would be very discouraging to think this is systematic and everyone is doing it. It has always been there, it may always have been there. But the more people realize this is not right, the more I think people will be inclined to fight it."

Yesalis says athletes take dope because fans are addicted to ever-bigger thrills.

"The frustration is this is not going to change because fans don't care," he says. "I think what people are looking for is bigger-than-life people doing bigger-than-life things. Performance-enhancing drugs facilitate that. And that has made these sports and their federations multimillion-dollar operations."

Roberts, however, says athletes and sports associations must take responsibility.

"I have a hard time blaming the public. A lot of the public really doesn't understand how much drug use there is," he says. "It's like fighting in hockey. The NHL thinks they need fighting to draw the fans. But it is already a good, clean, fast sport with a lot of excitement. If you assume you need fighting, and don't change the rules to make fighting disappear, is the public to blame?"

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