Note: This article is about the legal history of Anabolic Steroids in the United States and not an endorsement or discussion about steroids and performance.
There is perhaps no other topic in sports that garners as emotional a reaction than the use of steroids or performance enhancing drugs by professional athletes. For some the ends justify the means, whilst for others, the use of any ergogenic (something that aids performance) goes against fair play.
I suspect that much of this debate is fuelled by the fact that anabolic steroids are an illegal substance in the United States, which is oftentimes the mecca of sports. With that in mind, today’s post looks at the history of steroids in the United States, specifically their first uses and when they became a banned substance.
Steroids: An American Love Story
The ‘discovery’ of steroids can be traced to Germany in 1931, when chemist Adolf Butenandt found a way to isolate and purify the hormone androsterone. This groundbreaking discovery was soon improved by fellow German chemist Leopold Ruzicka, who found a means of synthesising the hormone for human use. By 1935 Ruzicka and Butenandt were creating batches of synthetic testosterone, a scientific advancement that saw both men awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. That’s right. The inventors of steroids got a Nobel Prize back in the day…
By the late 1930s, the first injections of testosterone were being administered to humans for a whole range of purposes and despite the war to come, the invention of steroids brought with it the idea that man could be altered through chemical means. In the US, this was seen informally with the birth of Captain America in 1941, who went from puny to brawny thanks to a secret serum from Dr. Josef Reinstein. Thereby making Captain America the first known juicer in the US.
Makes you view the movie differently now right?
Comic book heroes aside, by the 1940s the Soviet Union were administrating anabolic steroids to large numbers of its athletes, something which explained their dominance in post-war sporting events. It didn’t take long for America to cotton on to the Soviets ways of doing things. By the mid-1950s Dr. John Ziegler, the U.S. Olympic team physician found a way to soon develop methandrostenolone, which is better known in bodybuilding circles as Dianabol. Ciba Pharmaceuticals was first to market the drug and by 1958 Dianabol was approved by the FDA for human use.
Interestingly the first known users of Dianabol were Bob Hoffman and three well known lifters, John Grimek, Jim Park and Yaz Kuzahara. This was a reflection of Ziegler’s close relationship with Hoffman and York Barbell at the time. Interestingly, Grimek was a well known weightlifter and one of bodybuilding’s first stars, making his use of Dianabol a foreshadowing of what was to come for the bodybuilding.
Importantly, all four men reported greater muscle mass and strength gains, which encouraged Ziegler to administer Dianabol to the entire U.S. Olympic weightlifting team in Rome in 1960 yet despite their new enhanced chemicals, the US still lost to the Soviets. More seriously the 1960 Olympics also saw the first reported death due to doping when Danish cyclist Knud Enemark Jensen died during competition. Stemming from Knud’s death, the media began to take more notice of steroids in sport. That same year Sports Illustrated published ‘Our Drug Happy Athletes’, an expose on the use of amphetamines, tranquilizers, cocaine amongst elite athletes. Regardless it took nearly seven years before the International Olympic Committee established a medical commission to fight doping and it wasn’t until 1968 that compulsory drug tests were brought into the Olympics proper. During that time period steroids had become an accepted means of performance enhancement in several American pastimes such as baseball and American Football.
The IOC testing methods introduced in 1968, which remember were the first of their kind, were particularly weak. Almost no one tested positive for performance enhancing drugs at either the 1968 Winter Olympic Games in France, or the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico. In fact, the first Olympic athlete disqualified for doping was not a steroid user at all but rather Swede Hans-Gunnar Liljenwall, a member of the pentathlon team who was stripped of his bronze medal in Mexico when he tested positive for excessive alcohol in his system. Remarkably at the same competition, 14 other athletes tested positive for tranquilizers which were not banned at the time.
Steroids and the Seventies
If the past half century had seen steroids used in abundance by athletes, the following decades would see organisers attempt to expose such athletes. In 1972 the IOC instigated large scale drug testing for all narcotics, resulting in the disqualification of seven athletes. Three years later Anabolic steroids were added to the IOC’s list of banned substances, marking a sea change in public opinion on the drugs. Steroids were becoming the boogey man of sporting endeavours.
Not that athletes stopped using steroids. Far from it. In July 1981 U.S. discus thrower Ben Plucknett tested positive for anabolic steroids, losing his world record title and becoming the first athlete to be disqualified by the International Association of Athletic Federations for steroid use. Despite Plucknett’s punishment, American athletes did not stop taking the drugs. In 1983 the Pan Am Games in Venezuela descended into chaos when a surprise drug test resulted in the withdrawal of dozens of athletes. Including a dozen American athletes who withdrew from the competition and returned to the U.S. without explanation. Something was up and it wouldn’t be long before a real scandal hit North America.
Ben Johnson on the cover of the Oct. 3, 1988 issue of Sports Illustrated.
In 1988 Ben Johnson became the first Canadian sprinter from Canada since 1928 to win the 100m final spring at the Seoul Olympics. Far from a lasting glory, Johnson was stripped of his medal after just three days following a positive testing for stanozolol, an anabolic steroid. Suspended from competition for two years, Johnson’s banning had ramifications for the United States.
By the mid 1980s concerns about anabolic steroids in both professional sports and amongst lay users was growing in strength. People were concerned that spurred on by their favourite athlete, teenagers and adults were looking toward chemical enhancement for purely recreational purposes. The Johnson banning was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the American media and in the ensuing frenzy following the Canadian’s suspension, Congress was heavily lobbied to examine the use of steroids. From 1988 to 1990, congressional hearings were held to determine whether the Controlled Substances Act (1970) should be amended to include anabolic steroids. Importantly many of these hearings revealed the complexity surrounding steroid use. Several agencies and medical professionals spoke against the move, arguing that steroid use did not not lead to the physical or psychological dependence required to be included in the Act. This confusion amongst the medical community was contrasted with the unanimity from representatives from sporting organisations, who argued that banning steroids would solve the problem of doping in sport once and for all.
After two years of deliberations Congress passed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990, thereby criminalising possession of anabolic steroids without a valid prescription. Anabolic steroids were listed in the same legal class as barbiturates, ketamine, LSD precursors, and narcotic painkillers such as Vicodin. Once the law became effective in 1991, unlawful possession of any amount of anabolic steroids, even without the intent to sell or distribute, became a federal crime. This applied to athletes and non- athletes alike with the potential of imprisonment of up to one year and/or a minimum fine of $1,000 seen as an effective deterrent.
Hulk Hogan during his heyday
The early 1990s would see numerous sporting organisations feel the pinch of the new regulations including the World Wrestling Federation and it’s star Hulk Hogan. Notably this period would see thousands of Hulkamaniacs left heartbroken when it was revealed that the Hulkster had in fact used anabolic steroids in the past.
Since the 1990s several more amendments have been made to steroid laws in the United States, such as the 2004 Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004, which added prohormones to the list of controlled substances and the more recent 2014 Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2014 which expanded the list of anabolic steroids regulated by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to include about two dozen new substances and established new crimes relating to false labelling of steroids.Despite such actions, the use of anabolic steroids and performance enhancing drugs in the US has continued. The ever increasing size of bodybuilders being evidence of that!
Surveying a brief history of steroids in the United States leaves us with two quite unsettling observations. The first that steroids were used with impunity for decades by athletes and lay users, without any real legal consequences. Given the concern about steroid use exhibited by modern government officials, it seems remarkable that steroids were unregulated for the better part of forty years.
Secondly, legislation on steroid use has largely been ineffective with regards professional sports. Since the early 1990s, I’d wager that performance enhancing drugs have become even more widespread in the sporting domain than before as athletes and teams seek better results. The fact that Ben Johnson’s 1988 world record time in the 100m sprint has been beaten several times over by supposed clean athletes makes one wonder whether chemical enhancements did not play a role. After all, have training methods improved greatly since 1988?
As a final point, I suspect much of the discourse on steroid consumption is being corrupted by media frenzies seeking to scare monger. Hormone Replacement Therapy is now a recognised medical practice that has helped countless numbers of men and women lead better lives thanks to steroid use. Do we talk about that? Nope. Instead we crucify athletes who dare admit or get caught taking drugs for sporting purposes. If we want to understand steroid use, a real discussion on the matter is needed because at present, the US regulations are lacklustre at best.