Fistic Medicine: The Benefit & Cost of Steroids

As great a baseball player as Barry Bonds was, my children and yours will know him as the greatest anabolic steroids salesman his sport has ever known. Will the same be said of Royce Gracie in MMA? Will we remember the scrappy 170-pound David who toppled the 6-foot-5 220-pound Gerard Gordeau in UFC 1 to definitively prove technique trumps muscle, or will we remember the steroid cheat who reacted to the Matt Hughes loss by illicitly bulking up for his next fight? The lesson from Gracie’s steroid use for MMA fans and athletes was unmissable: Technique may trump muscle, but technique plus steroids trumps everything. As dismaying as the dawn of the steroid era in MMA may have been to purists, it was old news for mainstream sport. A decade before Gracie first belted up a gi, an unremarkable German party apparatchik named Manfred Ewald began the work that would earn him the title "Father of the Steroid Century.”

For physicians Ewald’s work has borne little fruit: The use of anabolic hormones like HGH and steroids in the treatment of burns, aging and neuromuscular disease is quite limited. For elite athletes and their trainers, however, Ewald’s research on anabolic steroids and performance is the Magna Carta of doping. Every "enhanced” MMA fighter -- Gracie, Leben, Barnett, Sherk, Shamrock and how many undiscovered others? -- are the pharmaceutical children of Ewald's black genius. Ewald performed his groundbreaking anabolic steroid research in East Germany. All of East Germany. In 1961 Ewald -- a party functionary with no scientific background and nothing on his resume other than service in the Hitler Youth and Nazi party -- assumed the post of Minister of Sport in East Germany, the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Upon assuming leadership he promptly initiated a cooperative effort among biochemists, pharmaceutical companies and the state-run athletic development program to engineer superhuman athletes.

What he achieved was impressive: The GDR won nine gold medals in the 1968 Olympics, 20 in 1972 and 40 in 1976! This for a nation with a small, genetically homogenous population and a crippled economy. Starting in 1974, buoyed by the success of doping and the international acclaim East German athletes garnered, Ewald initiated near universal anabolic hormone doping throughout the entire GDR athletic program. Often the doping was conducted without the athletes’ knowledge or consent. For more than a decade, athletes as young as 11 years old, males and particularly females, were started on pharmaceutical "assistance” programs as carefully engineered and scrupulously monitored as a modern Kentucky Derby winner’s diet and training. As the Ministry’s work was done with the full cooperation and support of the state, there was no need for internal secrecy. Detailed records were kept on thousands of athletes over their entire professional lives. When the Berlin Wall fell, Ewald lost his job and that startling data became available to the world. It showed two dramatic findings: first, steroids work. Unquestionably and dramatically. Aside from the astronomic international medal count of a tiny nation with little genetic diversity and a third world economy, the data shows quantifiable individual performance improvements. With steroids, 100-meter sprint times were cut almost three quarters of a second -- the difference between a world champion and a runner whose career ends in college. Athletes on steroids put the shot an additional two to five meters (World Record: 23.12m), hurled the javelin eight to 15 meters farther (WR:72.2m) and added as much as 20 meters to their discus throws (WR:74.1m).

Those data are unambiguous: In "strength” sports, anabolic hormones are indispensable. To the degree combat sports are strength dependent -- and the beating Matt Hughes subjected Royce Gracie to at UFC 60 makes that argument forcefully -- the advantages of using steroids are abundantly clear. If that reality is clear to the doctors and scientists who study performance, it is all the more clear to the fighters whose lives, careers and livelihoods depend on gaining that performance advantage. The second clear lesson from the 30-year GDR anabolic hormone program is that the human costs of steroid use are gruesome. A lawsuit has been leveled against the makers of the most commonly used steroid, Torinabol, by several GDR athletes suffering from its long-term effects. Many of these athletes are so physically crippled after their athletic careers end that they are incapable of other work. Women subjects, those athletes whose performance benefited most from the masculinizing anabolic steroids, suffered peculiarly: severe acne, hirsutism, infertility. Among all doped athletes, rates of premature heart disease, liver failure, cancer are increased.

These are not isolated cases of over-amped muscle junkies taking bizarre steroid doses and compounding their danger with alcohol and drug abuse -- these are physician-controlled doses in carefully managed athletes. The conceit among fighters that steroids can be used without consequences to speed the healing of an injury or add lean mass is just that: a fanciful notion unenlightened by the evidence of 40 years. Even for someone not familiar with the GDR’s anabolic hormone data, for someone coming up in smokers and no-name gyms, the benefits of steroids are clear. Anyone can look at the weekend’s baseball box scores, or the latest Hall of Famer's heartfelt confessional, and see the evidence. Tragically the long-term costs of anabolic hormone use are not nearly as evident or as publicized. Perhaps even if they were, it would not matter: Athletes who engage in combat sports have already reconciled themselves to a hard life of sacrifice and risk. The additional, deferred risks of steroids are all too easy to ignore in light of the tremendous "next fight” advantages they offer.


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