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A male swimmer.

Steroids are not just for elite athletes--they can be used by anyone who wants to change his or her body image. The Centers for Disease Control's Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance report shows more than a million youth taking steroids, and the numbers have been rising every year.

The dope on steroids: Why some athletes take the risk

Why some athletes take the risk

By Ann Freeman

Published on August 21, 2004

The stakes in Athens are fierce. The difference between an Olympic gold or silver medal could be a one hundredth of a second on the track or in the pool; an inch on the pole vault or shot put.

The athletes who make the Olympic cut are blessed with the right combination of physical and psychological traits, including an intense competitive drive and an unrelenting determination to be the best. This is the stuff of champions.

Unfortunately, sometimes so are steroids.

For decades, athletes have used anabolic (meaning muscle-building) steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs to build strength and endurance. And those drugs are getting more and more sophisticated in an effort to evade detection. Doping, as the practice is called, is illegal and, by most people's standards, unethical. Athletes who have been caught using these drugs have been stripped of their Olympic medals and world records and banned from their sports, sometimes for years, and on occasions for a lifetime.

"There are rights and wrongs in life, and if it's against the rules, it's cheating to do it," says Wiese-Bjornstal. "I love sports, but some athletes treat elite sports as if they are life itself, more important than their health, their loved ones, and even their lives."

In addition, steroids mess with your body. Potential side effects include high blood pressure, strokes, nausea, sleep problems, increased aggressiveness, and severe mood swings. In men, steroids can reduce sperm count and cause impotence, breast growth, and shrunken testicles. In women, side effects can include reduced breast size, increased body and facial hair, a deepened voice, and menstrual problems.

Sound worth it? With the risks and consequences of steroid use so high, why do some athletes continue to dope?

"The major underlying factor [with steroids use] is that winning at all costs is the most important thing," says Diane Wiese-Bjornstal, associate professor in the School of Kinesiology. She says that athletes that use steroids often have the mindset that "they are demonstrating that they are as highly committed to their sport as they can be and are doing whatever it takes to prove to themselves, their coaches, and to the world that they are true athletes who will do anything to win."

From a moral and ethical framework, Wiese-Bjornstal believes this is twisted thinking. "There are rights and wrongs in life, and if it's against the rules, it's cheating to do it," she says. "I love sports, but some athletes treat elite sports as if they are life itself, more important than their health, their loved ones, and even their lives."

She also says there is pressure to dope because of the belief that everyone else is doing it, and that if an athlete wants to compete at the highest level, she or he has to do it, too.

Nancy Cullen, a sports psychology consultant for the University, says the temptation to use steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs simply comes down to the rigors and pressure of elite competition and the desire to win. She cites an alarming poll taken in 1995 of 198 sprinters, swimmers, power lifters and others, most of whom were Olympians or aspiring Olympians. The poll asked if the athletes would take a banned performance-enhancing substance if they knew if would help them win and they wouldn't be caught--195 responded, yes.

"Most athletes train for perfection," says Cullen. "The drive to achieve and win is so strong. If the difference between winning or losing is a hundredth of a second, and there is a drug that might give you the edge, the temptation can be great."

For some Olympic events, steroid scandals have cast a pall over the games, leaving viewers to wonder after each win, "Did he take drugs? Did she?"

Both Wiese-Bjornstal and Cullen agree that education, beginning with young athletes, is important in the fight against steroid use, as are drug testing and stiffer penalties for those who are caught. They also believe that coaches and parents play an important role in supporting the healthy ambitions of developing athletes.

"It's important to teach athletes to know what the consequences are and to learn other training practices that are legal and don't involve taking drugs," says Cullen. "Strive to win, strive for perfection, but do it within the rules of the game."