Oct. 24, 2003 -- The designer steroid at the center of a doping scandal that rocked the sports world this week is probably not the only illicit, performance-enhancing drug being used by elite and amateur athletes, experts say.
Numerous organizations, including the American College of Sports Medicine, have condemned the development and use of steroids that cannot be detected by standard doping tests. One such compound, the engineered steroid tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), was recently identified after a whistle-blower sent a sample of it to anti-doping officials.
"If there is one great concern that THG has exposed, it is the potential that other non-detectable anabolic steroids may be in the pipeline," doping expert Gary I. Wadler, MD, FACSM, said in a news release. "The scientific and public health implications of this issue are quite disconcerting."
Be Careful What You Wish For
Speaking during a Friday afternoon news conference, Wadler called anabolic steroids "dangerous substances" that pose a particularly great risk to young athletes.
"People take them and they see that they are getting more muscular and defined," he said. "They think steroids are doing them a world of good, when, in fact, they may be entering into a Faustian pact that may come back to bite them years down the road."
Side effects associated with regular steroid use by males include reduced sperm production, shrinking of testicles, impotence, baldness, and breast enlargement. Their use has also been linked to an increased risk of liver cancer and cysts, increased cholesterol, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Steroids are also associated with increased anxiety and aggression, and teens who take them risk stunting their growth.
There are no good figures on how many people take anabolic steroids to enhance sports performance, but in a 1999 National Institute on Drug Abuse survey, roughly 3% of 12th graders said they had used steroids at least once.
"We are very concerned that kids are taking these substances without fully understanding their long-term effects and the risk they are exposing themselves to," said American College of Sports Medicine president-elect William O. Roberts, MD, FACSM.
And it is not unheard of for high school athletes to share needles when using injectable steroids, said Andrew Pipe, MD, FACSM, chairman of the Canadian Center for Ethics in Sport.
"There are added public health dimensions to this issue which are not necessarily evident at first glance," he said.
According to news reports, the newly identified steroid implicated in what officials are calling the biggest drug bust in sports history is distributed by a California nutrition company with ties to many well-known athletes. Many of them, including Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants, have been subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury investigating the company.
In a news release issued this week, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency Chief Executive Officer Terry Madden called the use of THG "intentional doping of the worst sort."
"This is a far cry from athletes accidentally testing positive as a result of taking contaminated nutritional supplements," he says. "Rather, this is a conspiracy involving chemists, coaches and certain athletes using what they developed to be 'undetectable' designer steroids to defraud their fellow competitors and the American and world public who pay to attend sports events."
In the Friday news conference, Pipe said the identification of THG can be viewed in positive terms because it indicates that efforts to police illicit, performance-boosting drug use by athletes are working.
"When we uncover these kinds of incidents it is evidence of the fact that we have a system in place that is doing what it should," he said, adding that no amount of policing will work if there is an atmosphere of tolerance for drug use within the sports community.
"I don't want to sound Pollyanna-ish when I say this, but ultimately what we have is more than a drug problem, it is a values problem," he said. "Until we address the values issue we will not make as much headway as we might."