Monday, July 26, 2010

I didn't know about the GDR...

It's pretty difficult to practice, read, learn and talk about strength training without coming across steroids, and other performance-enhancing drugs in our little sub-culture. There hasn't been anything that's come into the strength training world that's had such a monumental impact quite like anabolic steroids. I've written about them quite a bit in the past and I'd like to think that my knowledge breaks down like this: I know quite a bit more than most non-steroid users but still not nearly as much as a steroid user would know. I wasn't much different than many people whose opinions were changed about steroid use when I watched, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster" for the first time.

It's hard to walk away from that movie without feeling like the side effects of steroid use is heavily exaggerated and, more accurately, completely made up. It's like that Bodybuilding magazine editor in the movie said: "show me the bodies!" It's difficult to find someone who died a death from steroids alone. Hulk Hogan confirms that: most of the troubled, dead wrestlers he knew of were using a lot of other stuff in addition to steroids. "Steroid Expert" Dr Gary Wadler is frequently criticized by peers because he makes claims about the dangers of steroids without backing them up. According to the movie, the amount of studies done regarding medium and long term use of steroids by athletes and/or healthy individuals is pretty thin, bordering on insignificant.

Chris Bell went so far as to say, "we don't know, those studies haven't been done." I don't know if he ever heard, or saw, the data from the German Democratic Republic (GDR, Eastern Germany, during the cold war) systematic administration of steroids to its "amateur athletes" during the cold war.

A brief intelligence dump: Eastern Germany was something of a fly speck in Europe. They had a third world economy and somehow, they became a dominant force in any Olympic event that they placed an athlete in, particularly the women athletes. Of course, they did this with a systematic, government-sponsored steroid regimen aimed at creating super humans (eugenics, anyone?). As far as the ruling party of the GDR was concerned, athletics was the ideal way to show the superiority of their country and their socialist system. They carefully concealed this program and event to this day, there are a lot of documents regarding this entire project missing.

The Sports Medical Service in the GDR (the SMD) began using Oral-Turinabol heavily but they also experimented with some of the common favorites, like Dinabol, Deca-Durabolin and Androstendione (McGwire!). The list goes on and on. Almost all of the early leg work concerning anabolic steroids and androgenic hormones occurred in Germany prior to WWII so the Germans, East and West, were most likely well ahead of the rest of the world when it came to steroids. The Eastern Germans used this chemical-sports-armament aggressively, finding the naturally-strongest and best young sports talent in their country and starting them on these drugs as early as 14 years old. The SMD noted that the dramatic effects of the steroid use was much more pronounced in women than in men so their doses were noticeably higher. Their success in the Olympic Games was stunning, with Eastern Germany frequently placing high up in medal counts.

It came at a price. Many of the girls complained bitterly about the severe acne, the deepened voices (one athlete even sued the Government after the unification, claiming that the steroid use damaged her voice, making it impossible for her to work as a translator), heavily-increased libido (which was alluded to being a cause of bisexual behavior and transsexual feelings amongst female athletes) and the nearly uncontrollable hair growth. The SMD noted that the drug regimens consistently led to increased and unusual muscle size, tightness, and cramps. A cute phrase was inserted into the report too. "Unofficial Collaborators" noted problems with liver and kidney damage as well as gastrointestinal issues in many of the athletes.

I was a little surprised to hear about these documented side effects since I'd never heard of a lot of them occurring in users prior to reading a symposium on the SMD's Doping program. Unfortunately, Performance-enhancing drugs have entered this foggy realm of knowledge where the facts are twisted and turned to suit the needs of both sides of the argument. The anti-steroids crowd link everything from 'roid-rage to heart attacks to cancer to suicidal thoughts to steroids and PED use. You'd think, from listening to them, that steroids are as bad, or worse, than cocaine addiction! The pro-steroid crew say that this is all lies, admitting to the more cosmetic (acne, increased hair, etc) and reproductive issues with the drugs. Unfortunately, the truth gets lost in the middle and nobody seems interested in finding it. That truth is that steroids, and many other hormones used as PED's, have side effects that are occasionally more serious than making a woman look like a man.

Let's always remember something: there is no such thing as a safe drug. Everything has side-effects and the key is to consider the damage done by the side-effects and compare it to the state of the person's health that's taking the drug. Obviously, an AIDS patient taking 'roids probably doesn't care about some muscle cramps, acne, or shriveled balls. A normal, healthy person is a much different story.

So, what difference does this all make? If someone makes the choice to take steroids, then what do we care? We hear questions like this a lot. I couldn't have answered any of them convincingly a while ago. The answer to all of this became more cleared after this epiphany. I think of the sports that I played in and the strength training that I do as a chance to develop myself into a better overall person and not simply as a means to satisfy my carnal desires and pride. Let's face it: these aren't honest or helpful reasons to train and compete in the long run. Taking steroids only feeds into the seemingly never-ending desires to be better and better for no other reason than for the sake of itself. It certainly doesn't help the body or the mind expand and grow together in a meaningful way in the long term.

At this moment, even the most lowly backyard strength trainer showing a younger person the way to strength is an example of how to live, albeit a small but significant way. Do we want to show them how to be the best, most honest, and complete human being that they can be? Or do we show, by example, that ego-driven pride and desires are the only good reasons to pick up a weight?


Jeff Stevenson said...

Very thoughtful and soulful post. (Did I just use the word soulful? Oh well.)

Like many who came of age in the 80s, I got the "bodybuilding bug" after seeing guys like Stallone and Arnold. I train more for all all-around fitness these days, but will always have a soft spot in my heart for bodybuilding.

Having said that, I have never used steroids, nor was I ever really tempted to do so. Just seemed like cheating to me.

Like you, I train as much to develop my inner-man as my outer-man. Some of the most messed up people I've ever known are those who train solely the glorification of the outer-man.

But as the good Book says..."For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?"

To me, taking steroids to glorify the outer man is indeed akin to selling your soul.

Thanks but no thanks.

Anonymous said...

I only just recently saw Bigger, Faster, Stronger. You're right, it is thought prevoking.

What I get out of all of the steroid talk is that none of the information we have is reliable. Steroids are considered evil by most and the only reasons they can come up with are either unproven or outright false.

On the other hand, we have the guys who do use steroids and who actually train like as hard as they should if they're using, the logic these guys use to justify their use is even worse than the anti-steroid arguments.

Just saying, opinions on this one are biased. Either they're strongly influenced by culture or they're strongly influenced by desires to be... bigger, stronger and faster.

How many of us can honestly say we're objective on the subject. Taking a powerful drug on a regular basis for many years is dangerous (that it's powerful is being determined by the incredible changes to the body of anyone using it). The risks, we don't know. That there are risks, even if they're unknown, of that we can be sure.
We want to be the best we can be, but we're influenced by both fear and ego and provided no significant reliable information to guide our decisions.

I for one don't, and wont use steroids but towards all but those who use but claim they don't, my opinion of them wont sway one way or another.

Justin_PS said...

Many have asked why are steroids considered cheating and few can give a convincing answer. Maybe this is why we think of steroid use as cheating: Just from what you're saying, Jeff.

Good comments guys. I'm glad we're all on the same page.

Faust said...

Justin, nice to see that someone takes the effort to look up the history of PEDs. In Germany there were quite some court cases where victimized athletes told their stories.
Btw, the olympic medal counts were invented by the eastern block to proof the superiority of the communistic system.


John Cintron said...


I watched bigger faster and stronger because of your blog. I was in shock of what I learned the supplement stuff scared the crap out of me more than the steriod stuff.I am very hesitant when people talk to me about the new supplement craze.

John Cintron

Gabriel said...

Where's the part about making the women bisexual? I searched the symposium document.

Justin_PS said...

Hopper, director of the SMD, submitted this government report:

"In numerous women the prevailing administration of anabolic
hormones has resulted in... disturbances in libido. The effect on the sexual drive was
relatively strong in some women. This resulted in special problems,
particularly in training camps where the “official” male
partners of these women were not present"