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Steroid Use In Sport Essay, Research Paper

Does the End Justify the Means?:

A Critical Look at the Ethics Involved with Drug Use in Sport

The fierce competitive nature of the modern sports’ world, in combination with society’s demand for excellence, have caused athletes to seek alternative means to enhance their performance. Today’s athlete faces an increasingly difficult choice: to use drugs to enhance performance or to accept what could amount to a competitive handicap. It is a choice which carries significant ethical considerations. Should athletes be permitted to make this choice, or should society, through the medium of sports’ governing bodies strictly enforce the ban on performance enhancing drugs? Some argue that the choice should be left to the athletes in order to respect their individual choice above any ethical considerations. Others choose to ban performance-enhancing drugs with the intention of protecting the athlete against the potentially harmful consequences of his or her own actions. Athletes who are caught using illegal drugs are often exposed through the media and negatively discriminated against by the sporting community. The result is that the athlete faces a double bind conflict: he or she is pressured to produce superhuman performance, yet must remain ethically human while preparing for them. The ramifications of cheating in sport are numerous and all negative in nature. Beyond the negative aspect which cheating in sports presents, are dangerous physiological and psychological side effects which the athlete faces when using performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic and androgenic steroids. At the heart of many anti-drug use in sport debates, lies the theory that drugs sabotage the true intention of sport. This, among other factors, serves to explain my thesis: the continuing saga of drug use in sport is not only unethical but also negatively impacts the athlete, as well as the sporting community. In addition, the sociocultural factors which contribute to the use of steroids will also be discussed.

Before trying to prove that drugs serve no positive role in sport, it would be beneficial to outline the history of drug use in sport. In the early 1950’s, athletes in the eastern European world were already using crude forms of testosterone injections to increase their strength.1 News of this new drug spread when Russian weightlifters shattered previous weight lifting records with consistency. Dr. John Ziegler was able to confirm this rumour, and upon return to the U.S., promised to give American athletes the same edge. In 1956, he developed Dianabol, the early derivative of testosterone. It’s use soon spread among many countries throughout the world. Early users included mainly bodybuilders, weightlifters, football players, and discus, shot put, or javelin throwers who relied heavily on bulk and strength for increased performance. Scientists soon discovered that by altering testosterone, the virilizing side effects could be removed or significantly lessened. The result was the creation of anabolic steroids. By the late 1950’s and early 1960’s all of the current anabolic steroids had already been manufactured in laboratories. By the 1980’s non-athletes discovered the body-enhancing properties of steroids and the black market began to flourish for the illegal production and distribution for nonmedical purposes. Anabolic steroids were used legally to treat a limited number of medical conditions that cause a degeneration of muscle tissue such as AIDS and certain cancers. European attitudes continue to be quite liberal in comparison to the strict bans that are enforced in the U.S. and Canada. Today, recent statistics report that there are over three million American athletes, male and female, who are using steroids to enhance performance in sports. 2 A recent article published by the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information (N.C.A.D.I.) has stated that 90% of professional athletes have at one time taken some form of illegal performance-enhancing drug. (N.C.A.D.I., 1998, p.2)

Athletes who are caught using steroids and other illegal performance-enhancing drugs face the shame which our culture places upon them. Ben Johnson drew considerable negative attention to himself, as well as to Canada, as a sports competitor when he admitted to using anabolic steroids following a win in the 100 m race at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. The medal was revoked and Johnson’s reputation destroyed. As a result, he received a lifetime ban from sport.

The Chinese swimming team was banned from participating in the Pan-Pacific swimming games of 1997 because of claims made by competing nations that China was involved in drug use. Baseball all-star, Mark Maguire, recently broke Roger Maris’s record of 61 home runs in a season by hitting 70 of his own homeruns in the 1998 season. During an interview that he was giving next to his locker, a reporter noticed a bottle of androstenedione on the top shelf. Androstenedione is a legal dietary supplement that is a testosterone- producing drug which helps the body repair itself between workouts.3 Maguire was immediately discriminated against by many members of the media and sporting community as being a drug user and not deserving of the record. Society’s discrimination against Maguire and ANDRO was significantly lessened when respected sources published anti-ANDRO articles which noted false claims and undesirable side effects of the drug. To date, no studies have shown ANDRO supplementation to have a positive effect on lean mass, strength, or performance.4 Androstenedione is banned by a number of sports’ organizations such as the N.F.L., N.C.A.A. and the I.O.C., but is legal in the M.L.B.A.. In connection with the theme of this paper, a recent interview with Mark Maguire substantiated that he has officially stopped taking Androstenedione. He reports that he is tired of being a spokesperson for the product and does not endorse its use. Maguire also leads the league in home runs for the 1999 season.

Another concept to understand when dealing with the use of drugs in sport is the nature of sports as an organization. The common element in sports is the goal of identifying and rewarding certain forms of human excellence. This is explicit in the Olympic motto, “higher, faster, stronger”, just as clearly as we view ways of attaining excellence as legitimate or illegitimate. Fierce competition, teamwork, effort, ability, desire, strategy and excellence are the main elements of sport which are all positively regarded.5 Unfair advantages, sabotaging competitors and using banned equipment and substances are all seen as negative practices. Society constantly evaluates what are legitimate and illegitimate means of attaining the end. This can be seen in the introduction of the relatively new supplement discussed earlier: androstenedione. This drug was highly discriminated against until it was discovered that the apparent ‘edge’ it produced was so insignificant that fairness could be maintained.

Drugs and other performance enhancers do not reflect the forms of human excellence which sports are intended to honour. Using performance-enhancing drugs is analogous to using a corked or lead-weighted bat in baseball. In either case, the true skill, hard work and excellence of the athlete are masked behind a form of cheating.

Cheating in sports results in several negative situations. First, it breaks the rules of the sport and, therefore, gives one competitor an unfair advantage over others. Secondly, cheating can rarely be accomplished without lying or immoral secrecy, and so a person who cheats also usually must lie to escape detection. Thirdly, cheating can poison relationships among competitors and officials, transforming what should be an honest and positive social relationship into a deceitful and mistrustful one. Lastly, since cheating on any scale is usually discovered eventually, the trust and esteem by which athletes and athletics, in general, are held is damaged. It is in this final point by which the image and integrity of many sports organizations, including the Olympics, have been damaged by revelations of the widespread use of illegal drugs.

In addition to the negative impact of cheating in sports, the side effects of anabolic/androgenic steroids present another negative realm of drug use in sport. The side effects caused by steroid use can be very serious and even fatal. In addition to a long list of negative physiological side effects, psychological dependence is also an issue. Compulsion becomes a factor when addressing steroid use among athletes. There is an apparent psychological dependence on the physiological effects of the drug.6 Withdrawal symptoms are present when steroid use is terminated. Decreased sex drive, insomnia, headache, fatigue, depression, anorexia and dissatisfaction with body image are all common withdrawal symptoms. Some of the most common physiological side effects experienced by steroid users include: acne, gynecomastia (formation of breast tissue) , hypertension, cardiovascular disease, heart palpitations, impotence, jaundice (yellowing of eyes and skin), water retention, menstrual changes, virilization, cancer, enlarged prostate, insomnia, sterility, testicular atrophy, premature hair loss, voice changes and osteoporosis. 7

Although these risks are very real, many individuals continue to choose the path of drug use to enhance performance. Men and women by nature tend to seek ways to exert dominance over the members of their respected sex. This can be verbally, intellectually, physically or aesthetically. In our society we have always praised the athletes who achieve the most amazing physical feats or who have achieved cosmetic perfection. Having large muscles enhances confidence and strength, which in turn cause physical attraction by the opposite sex, leading to positive popularity. A person who is in shape usually portrays a sense of control and enjoyment for his or her life that is envied by most. Our society seems to be programmed to receive instant gratification. Steroids have been touted as the best and quickest way to achieve strength, power and an extraordinary physique which often leads to personal gratification. Unfortunately, the muscle building, fat burning and emotional lift of steroids on the mind and body can be extremely powerful and psychologically addictive. It is these effects which lead to its use and extreme abuse. People are generally never completely satisfied with the results that they achieve from using steroids because they think that if they use just a little bit more they will get just a little bit bigger and stronger. This thought cycle continues until the user is on a roller coaster of abuse that usually leads to an onslaught of physical and mental health problems. For this reason, there may be a greater number of cases of anabolic steroid-induced psychiatric illness than had once been assumed. These effects pose a danger not only to the steroid user but to the public at large.8

Why do athletes use steroids? This question has attracted much research into uncovering

a feasible explanation. Many theories have emerged from various sources. The media often answers this question by claiming the similarity between steroid use and other illegal substances such as cocaine, heroin or alcohol. Using this interpretation, the steroid user attempts to escape reality by transforming his/her physical appearance rather than his/her state of mind. Another popular view is that steroid users are mentally unstable to begin with. This theory is based on the belief that steroids are lethal drugs, therefore the user must possess some sort of mental illness to engage in their use. In general, society views steroid users as cheaters and people who lack the drive to do things ‘the hard way’. In this way, we tend to be very hypocritical in that we condemn people for not doing things ‘the hard way’, but we constantly practise the opposite in our daily lives. We look for ways to get rich quick, we try quick ‘miracle diets’ or we enrol in courses that promise a degree in half the time. An important theory that can never be underestimated is that society defines an individual’s needs. We learn that in order to gain acceptance within a group, we must do something extraordinary. Whether this translates to athletic victories or popularity, the acceptance and respect within society are desired pursuits in steroid users. The ‘win at any cost’ mentality is not specific to athletes. Often steroid users are seeking self-empowerment and personal growth. It is this group of people who are most likely to abuse steroids. In this way, steroid use appears to be a normal behaviour caused by an abnormal society.9 We subconsciously place demands on our athletes to consistently give outstanding performances. When an athlete falls into a slump, the media often turns its back on him or her, often resulting in society’s disapproval of the athlete. This desire to constantly be the center of attention and the fear of falling behind, frequently leads to steroid use in athletes. Posters, billboards, magazines and movies set the standard for what is ‘ideal’ in terms of physical beauty and appearance in society. Not to say that we are dictated by the media, but it does present attractive ideals for society to emulate. When actors such as Jean-Claude Van-Damme are caught using anabolic steroids, the message sent to society is dangerous: steroids create muscle and a beautiful body which, in turn, leads to fame and fortune.

Steroid use continues to be a popular trend within our society. No study has been published that shows a decrease in the prevalent use of anabolic steroid use over time.10 A double-bind conflict exists in the attempt to decrease steroid use among youth. Scare tactics have proven to be ineffective as a deterrent to taking steroids. Unfortunately ,greater knowledge of the side effects does not alter the attitudes of a potential steroid user. On the other hand, if the potential benefits of anabolic steroids are widely publicized, this could create a dangerous situation which could lead to a gateway to the abuse of steroids.

Drug testing is another ineffective means of deterrent for the use of steroids. Testing for illegal substances in the blood and urine of athletes is problematic for a variety of reasons. First, detecting violations may be very difficult technically. Many drugs are difficult and some impossible to detect.11 Some drugs are artificial versions of naturally occurring hormones or chemicals, therefore to recognize the difference between the two is often difficult. Secondly, some athletes have health conditions which require them to take certain drugs. Some of these drugs have performance-enhancing qualities in addition to their intended medicinal purposes. Thirdly, athletes who use drugs, often attempt techniques to mask the drug’s detection. Such practices include using a ‘masking’ drug to skew detection, substituting urine, or using blood testing prior to the event to monitor levels of illegal drugs present in their bodies. Finally, there is the case that an athlete may unknowingly take a banned drug when a coach or other trusted person advises to take it. A case study of this point is the evidence of the women’s Chinese swimming team, discussed earlier. Upon investigation, they did not engage in illegal steroid use, but rather engaged in an ancient Chinese practice of digesting a dried deer’s penis.12 The substance was reported to contain anabolic agents as well as a growth hormone, which explained the masculine-like physiques of the young Chinese female swimmers. The U.S.O.C. has a “strict liability” policy which makes the athletes’ urine and blood, his/her responsibility regardless of the excuse.

Detecting drug use in athletes may appear to be difficult, but when an athlete is apprehended, he or she is often exposed publicly to send a message to those who attempt the same act. Athletes who are caught using drugs the first time are banned for two years and for life if caught a second time.

The use of steroids and other illegal performance enhancing aids raises a number of difficult ethical and policy questions. . Performance aids that do not conform to society’s conception of what constitutes human excellence naturally are discriminated against as unethical and cheating. The true intention of sport is to gauge the athlete’s natural skill, rather than a synthetically enhanced performance that masks any human potential within the athlete. The ramifications of cheating in the sporting community, as well as in society, are never regarded in a positive light. An athlete who is caught cheating is cast among the degenerates of society. Health has been said by many to be the most important aspect of life and happiness. It is in the best interest of athletes, especially young athletes, that steroids not be used in order to avoid complications in health later in life. The problem with young athletes is their limited short-term scope of vision. If they refuse to consider side effects which could present themselves later in life, it should be at the discretion of the sports’ governing bodies to discover means to decrease the use of steroids in youth. The sociocultural factors such as acceptance within society, instant gratification, dominance, popularity, confidence and the ‘win-at-any-cost’ attitude explain why steroid use is still prevalent despite its negative connotations in our society. Drug testing is not yet extensive enough to act as an effective deterrent, but has enhanced fair competition in certain sports. Without any testing, drug use would be rampant. The future of drug testing can serve to be an effective deterrent if money, research and cooperation contribute together with positive incentives for drug-free athletes. The end does not justify the means. Modern sports competitions place little emphasis on the means when dealing with the end results. This presents itself to be a dangerous situation both for the athletes as well as for the integrity of sport.


Journals / Scholarly Articles

American Academy of Pediatrics. (1997). Adolescents and Anabolic Steroids: A Subject Review. Pediatrics. v. 99, 1-10.

Brown, W. (1980). Ethics, Drugs and Sport. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. v.2, 15-23.

Burke, M. (1997). Drugs in Sport: An Issue of Morality or Sentimentality?. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport. v. 24, 99-113.

Gwartney, D. (1999). Androstenedione: Physical and Ethical Considerations Relative to Its Use as an Ergogenic Aid. National Strength and Conditioning Journal. . v.21, 1, 65,66.

Meoreira de Araujo, M & Facio, M. The Use of Anabolic/Androgenic Steroids by Athletes. Sports Medicine. p.1-6.

National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information. Anabolic Steroids: A Threat to Mind and Body. NIDA- Research Report Series. v.3, 1-5.

Olrich, T. Young Athletes and Steroids: An Opportunity for Moral Dialogue and Growth. Institute For The Study of Youth Sports. 1-5.


Phillips, N. (1991). Anabolic Reference Guide(sixth issue). Golden, Co: Mile High Publishing.

Taylor, W. (1991). Macho Medicine: A History of the Anabolic Steroid Epidemic. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Yesalis, C. (1993). Anabolic Steroids in Sport and Exercise. Windsor: Human Kinetics Publishers.






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