Popping pills and pumping iron

Posted: Sunday, January 25, 2004

Sweating on a YMCA stationary bike, mindlessly watching TV, my attention was diverted to a jogger running at high speed on the treadmill.

He had one of those perfect, muscle-magazine builds, though not overly bulging. A lean, strong, sculpted body, the kind I would never have if I pedaled the distance to the moon and back and pumped iron for an eternity.

He stopped after a while and paused not far from me to talk to his friend, a fellow similarly around 25 or 30 and of a fine physique.

''Hey, man, you looking cut!'' the friend said.

''Feeling good, man,'' the runner said. ''I'm cycling right now. This stuff is good.''

They went on talking about cycling and stacking steroids a few moments then slapped hands and went their ways. I kept going nowhere on the stationary bike, wondering if their shortcut to fitness was worth it.

Al Green, a spokesman for the National Athletic Trainers' Association and the former head trainer for the University of Kentucky, was at another YMCA a few nights ago and glanced around the locker room.

''The amount of supplements on all these people who were there just to be healthy they're not even athletes is unbelievable,'' he said. ''There had to be 15 or 20 people in that locker room who opened their gym bags while I was in there, and I would say 90 percent of them had some type of performance-enhancing supplement.''

At Kentucky, where he worked from 1979 to 1997, he knew that about 10 percent of the athletes were taking steroids. He figured at least another 10 percent he didn't know about were also using them.

''The reason I knew about those 10 percent is that when their careers were over, they would discuss it,'' Green said. ''We did do random drug testing but we never caught them.''

Green said colleges are doing ''an adequate job'' drug testing randomly and at NCAA events, ''given their resources.'' But they will never catch everyone using steroids ''even if they spent billions of dollars'' on tests.

Every day Americans wage struggles with fitness and fatness. We are obsessed with diets and dietary supplements. Some of us gulp daily vitamin and mineral packs and get little benign boosts over-the-counter with coenzyme Q10, glucosamine chondroitin MSM, N-acetyl L-Cysteine, and sundry other popular concoctions. Others of us get all our nutrients at Krispy Kreme or Starbucks.

Steroids and steroid precursors appeal to a significant, if uncertain, number of athletes and non-athletes, mostly males from their early teens to their 50s. Human growth hormone ads pop up in millions of e-mails, touting miracles:

''Body Fat Loss... up to 82%

''Energy Level... up to 84%

''Sexual Potency... up to 75%

''Muscle Strength... up to 88%''

Never mind that the research to back that up is thinner than a shadow, and that HGH may have harmful side effects.

Scott Ruggles managed a General Nutrition Center store in Sammamish, Wash., for a few years. It's an upscale area, near a country club and a gated community with high-priced homes.

''Three events about steroid use and parents' participation stay in my memory,'' he said. ''First, a young man of high school age entered the store, pulled out of his pocket a small bottle of synthetic testosterone with an Oregon lab label and asked me how to use it. To which I replied, 'I don't know, but don't.'

''Second were two occasions ... when moms came in and sheepishly asked about steroid use and potential benefits and hazards. One was asking about it for her own son, and the second because her nephew in junior high was already given it by his parents for sports performance.''

The old term 'roid rage has given way to a rage over 'roids.

''Do steroids work? Do they make you bigger, stronger, faster? Without question, they do,'' Green says. ''You don't have to be an athlete to want to be bigger, stronger, faster. If you're in the construction industry, where you're doing a lot of physical work, you're going to want that edge. It goes down to kids in middle school.''

At the elite level of sports, in schools and in the pros, certified athletic trainers engage in a balancing act of treating injuries, keeping athletes in the game, and counseling them on the risks they're taking with their bodies.

The trainers can warn athletes about taking over-the-counter steroids and stimulants, but can't control them. They work under the guidance of doctors, but are paid by the schools and pro franchises and tours. They are involved in drug testing and are part of a team with the head coach, strength coach and nutritionist.

''As an athletic trainer, you are caught in the middle,'' Green said. ''You can talk to an athlete till you're blue in the face about not taking this or that. And the answer is, 'It makes me feel better, it makes me perform better. It's legal. It's an herbal, a food, not a drug.' It's hard to argue against that, and new supplements keep popping up in the market.''

They're in the stores and on the Internet. They show up in gym bags at the ''Y'' and in locker rooms all over sports. Trainers like Green watch and wonder where it's all headed.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org.

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