Remember the pall that was cast over the 1988 Olympics when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson had his gold medal taken away after he tested positive for steroids?
Despite the international scandal that resulted, steroids are still running strong, playing a growing and increasingly worrisome role in U.S. athletics and in America's drug epidemic.This problem is back in the news because the Canadians have been conducting an extended inquiry into the Ben Johnson scandal. So far, the most dramatic testimony has come from Johnson's coach, who claims that not to have given Johnson muscle-building, strength-enhancing steroids would have amounted to "unilateral disarmament" on the grounds that practically all top sprinters use these drugs.
Don't dismiss the claim just because it is so obviously self-serving. Despite the hazards to health, chronic abuse of steroids is reaching beyond the ranks of professional and college athletics into high schools and even junior high schools.
A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that as many as 500,000 high school boys, almost seven percent of them, are using steroids. Two-thirds of the users studied were involved in school sports. Most reported they began using steroids at age 16 or younger.
The problem persists even though the adverse side-effects associated with steroid abuse are well-known. Those effects can include liver and kidney damage, high blood pressure, impotence, freakish changes in sexual characteristics, heart problems, and even psychological problems.
Education alone is not the answer; the temptation to win at any cost seems to be too powerful. More testing and tougher penalties, including banishment from athletic competition, are in order. But so far the response to the challenge has been weak and spotty.
Though Canada, West Germany, and Spain, for example, are moving against the use of steroids by athletes, many nations are waiting for the International Amateur Athletics Federation and the International Olympic Committee to take the lead. To some extent, that's understandable since it would be unfair for competitors in international meets to have different rules for each country.
In the United States, the National Collegiate Athletic Association distributes posters and video tapes about the dangers of steroids, but there is not enough random testing. The National Football League finally got around last year to conducting such tests - but the tests are announced well in advance. And it's hard for coaches to clean up their teams as long as they can't be sure anyone is cleaning up the competition.
One thing that might help would be for the United States to hold hearings like those being conducted in Canada. Let's get the whole seamy business of athletics and steroids out into the open. Maybe then more young Americans will finally start to get the idea that there are more important things in sports besides winning at any cost.