Let’s just start this with a plain and obvious fact and go from there:
People take performance enhancing drugs (from here on out, simplified to: steroids).
A lot of people take steroids. And an even larger percentage of the high-level athlete demographic takes steroids. Steroids are used by some CrossFit elite athletes. Steroids are in all professional sports. Steroids are in high school sports. Steroids are in the aging population. Steroids are used by your idols. Steroids are pumping through the veins of some of the leanest people you know.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get down to why I wrote this article. Let’s stop talking about it already. I realize my own hypocrisy in that I am writing an article about the subject, but I feel it’s necessary to give my thoughts since people constantly ask me what my thoughts are on the issue. And so, here are my thoughts on why they are so popular not only to use but to talk about…
Why do people talk about them all the time!?
- They are great excuses for people
Many people want to find scapegoats for their lack of attaining their goals while others achieve them. It is much harder to admit to lack of talent, genetics, or discipline than to attribute successes of others to “evil” steroids. The reality is that many supposed physical ‘freaks’ are in fact just slightly above average with great work ethics combined with drugs. BUT there is a portion in every elite community of clean athletes or non-users who are able to compete at a world level. So, if you decide to be clean then you should avoid looking to comparisons and just focus on improving yourself.
- Everyone loves a fall from grace
We have a very biased pattern in our society that prefers to cheer for ‘under-dogs.’ Almost everyone who becomes a champion though starts as an underdog. It is easy to cheer for and see yourself in them. So, we root for them and become their cheering section. That is until they become too good and, therefore, too far out of the realm of our possible futures. When people ascend into this category, our society begins to act like crabs in a bucket ripping those idols limb from limb until they fall back into the bucket. How many people were so happy to see Lance Armstrong get popped and brought to ‘justice’? It seems it’s part of our psychology to want to believe that many people on the top are ‘cheaters’ because it will rob them of their glory, some of their money, all of their blood, sweat, and tears and they will be ‘just like us’ again.
- Drama Sells
How many news stories are truly honest unbiased explanations of both sides of a story that is pertinent to the protection and education of their viewers? The answer, if you watch typical media outlets that have high ratings, is small. This likely isn’t because they are evil corporations plotting to brainwash our culture into uneducated zombies (although that could be true), but because drama captures our attention. We only want to see that. It is easy. It fits into the realm of black and white and we do not have to deal with the gray moral areas…or worse, think. The more ‘juicy’ a story, the more that story acts like a nice sugary treat to our attention and we find it difficult to look away. It wouldn’t be a very good story for someone who was just be a normal guy/gal from a normal family with average looks, great work ethic, and a dedication to their craft to rise to the top. People want to hear that they almost died in a wild fire as an infant, were raised by wolves in the most poisonous jungle in the world, injected hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of synthetic drugs into their eye balls, rebuilt their soft tissues with adamantium wire cables, and killed 15 first born children to rise to the top. Reality is often boring to us. If you need to have proof of that take a walk around in the world and watch how many people prefer to live in the digital world instead of the real material world. Instead of cultivating real friends, we seek ‘followers’ on a site that turns our lives into pictures. These moments in time strung together by the fantasies of our imaginations or extreme panic to find the next ‘exciting moment’ to capture to show everyone else. We want more extreme narratives. We need the big, bad wolves to upgrade our boring realities because so many of us haven’t been able to find the magic in the real world. There exists a fascinating level of complexity in the human psyche and physical bodies. From crawling on the ground to quantum mechanics, the layers are fascinating enough to entertain for an infinite number of lifetimes. When the masses are able to reveal that level of complexity to themselves, we may be less desiring of the extreme narratives, but for now, we will continue to crave drama!
And why do people actually take steroids!?
So, we’ve all heard the horrible stories of people’s hearts enlarging and them dropping dead. Or hearing of people’s kidneys failing them and requiring dialysis for the rest of their lives. Or the likelihood of cancer, aids, and any other horrible disease increasing 115,000 times from taking drugs, so why would people subject themselves to that!?
- The stories aren’t true
Many people take steroids with medical oversight. I’m sure studies of ‘performance enhancing drugs’ will continue over the course of the next decades and I think they will find that with a medical application you can still maintain health. This is NOT an opinion saying it’s safe to take steroids (and I am NOT a doctor, so you should consult one if you want to take them), but it is my opinion based on observing many people who are long-term users that they stay healthy and having also consulted many experts in the field. The stories that get into the media are the ones of people that likely take extreme doses of multiple different compounds simultaneously for excessively long periods of time with no medical oversight. Additionally many of these people you hear about are also likely dabbling with other drugs, or playing in sports that could also be detrimental to their health. Again, we like to sensationalize things. The stories of people taking steroids to get better at their sport in healthy doses, then stopping when they retire and riding into the sunset are less likely to get website clicks and talk show viewers.
- They work!
Not only do they work, but they work REALLY well. I’ve seen people with poor genetics do amazing things on steroids. I’ve seen people with great genetics turn into demi-gods on steroids. If you are uneducated on the impact they can make on performance that is likely by design. There are many people in this industry at the top who are only there because they are users. People who claim that their six packs, strength, or performance are due to their ‘will power’ and ‘dedication’ actually have good chemists. Again, not everyone who is famous is ‘cheating’, but MANY leaders of the fitness industry are long time users. This isn’t a guarantee that you will become world class though at anything if you decide to take drugs. I’m sure there is genetic variability to the degree one responds to synthetic hormones. Additionally you still need to put an extreme amount of work into your craft and have at least an upper quartile level of genetic talent to even have a possibility of attaining a world-class status in a mature sport. However, science has made tremendous strides in its ability to upgrade the human body.
- Sports pay!
Most people would kill to play games for a living. There are definitely difficult aspects of being a professional athlete and it is very job-like at the highest level, but climbing the ranks of athletic sports is likely much more fun than being paid near to nothing flipping hamburgers. There aren’t many jobs in the world that pay people seven figures, and even less opportunities for people in their twenties to earn that much. High-level athletes are paid more than many doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs, lawyers, chefs, and just about every other profession. There is incentive to do anything possible to attain your goal and there will always be people willing to blur the rules or simply say “…if you aren’t cheating, you aren’t trying.”
So, Why should we stop talking about it?
- It likely doesn’t change anything for you
Most people in the fitness and sports world are never going to get paid to train and compete. Most people who struggle with self-confidence would probably still have low self-confidence if they took drugs and performed/looked better. I always ask people whenever they make any decision, “Is the juice worth the squeeze?” For most people with regards to steroids, it’s not worth it. It’s illegal, it can have negative health ramifications, it can have psychological consequences, and there is no real benefit for them. Maintain your health, enjoy your passion for training, avoid the drama associated with using, and learn to silence the noise.
- Nothing is going to change
I try to avoid complaining about things that just ‘are.’ I get mad sometimes that I don’t have the brain computing power to read a book by putting my forehead to the cover and never even opening it. I am mad sometimes that I don’t wake up with the ability to warp space and time. I am furious that I don’t have the ability to alter the collective conscious about topics of which I am passionately biased to one side. But, those things just are the way they are. I don’t actually complain about them…aloud. People just like to see crazy $hit. They want to see super human physiques capable of insane feats. And people who make money off the humans who can do crazy $hit want to make more money. The system is not rigged necessarily, but it was built in a way that is going to continue to support more ridiculous usage. If the fans want to see huge, lean, super powerful people do crazy things, then that is exactly what the fans are going to get. Throughout history, a power minority has never willfully resigned their power. If this were going to change, the majority of the players of sports would have to say that they refuse to play (ie limit revenue for the minority) without aggressive testing policies that were enforced year round. But, how realistic is it for young physical human beings to coordinate en masse and turn down potentially millions of dollars because of some future consequence of their actions that they can’t conceptualize? (Hint, it is not realistic.)
- It takes focus away from what matters
I feel we should be focused on how to allow people to live better lives; how to make them healthier, perform better, more happy, more purposeful, better movers, attain more well rounded self concepts, more connected, more giving, and more likely to succeed at whatever they choose. As a fitness, sports performance, and strength and conditioning community we shouldn’t be focused on knocking cheaters off their thrones. We should be focused on touching the individuals we coach. We should collectively be upgrading training protocols, refining our methods, continuing to educate ourselves, helping people achieve their goals, and helping them realize the habits that are preventing them from success. Most coaches I see commenting on steroids have ZERO athletes influenced directly by the steroid debate. They don’t coach anyone who can be world level, they don’t have anyone that would be world level if NO ONE were using. So, instead of choosing to spend our time pointing our disappointment elsewhere, we should be focusing on being better at what we do in our own space.
So, now that it’s off my chest, I can stop getting requests to publicly say whether or not (insert any high profile athlete here) is on drugs. The answer is always the same. “I don’t know, I don’t care, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.” And I’m ok with that. I just coach and continue to try to get people better and build bodies while forging relationships. I don’t do politics, I try to limit the number of guesses I make that could be wrong, and I know that is not my battle to fight. I encourage you, unless you are using or contemplating using, to focus on more productive aspects of your life and training. The grind might be longer, the peak of the mountain might be shorter, the legacy you leave might not be of a physically superior bring, but the journey will reveal so much more if you are living your authentic life instead of trying to confirm to societal ideals. Whatever it is you choose to do, make sure that you do you…