During the Olympic Games, the world gazes admiringly upon athletes with preternatural musculature and athletic ability – and then laments every tainted urine test, every revelation of doping. In the mind of the public, this is the problem with anabolic steroids: They undermine fairness in competition between elite athletes.
Damaging the spirit of sport, however, is a minor concern compared with how anabolic steroids impair the health of those who use them – not only Olympians and professional athletes, but also high school football players and rank-and-file weightlifters.
Last month, as more than 100 Russian athletes were banned from Olympic competition for doping, federal investigators revealed that Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub on June 12, had a long history of steroid use. That detail had a chilling echo: Norwegian killer Anders Breivik deliberately used steroids to fuel his 2011 attack that killed 77 and injured hundreds. It received little attention in the American news media at the time, but Breivik methodically experimented with the drugs and, as documented in his diary, carefully selected the steroid and dose for his “mission.”
These cold-blooded killings should tell us that even the direst health warnings about steroids – damage to the heart, liver, and reproductive system – don’t go far enough. It’s what anabolic steroids do to the brain that can be truly terrifying.
The popular image of ’roid-rage is a sudden and exaggerated response to a minimal provocation. But that’s not how it works. Instead, studies in animals show that steroid-induced aggression is not impulsive, nor uncontrolled. Steroid-treated rats remain attuned to the context of the fight: who their opponent is and where the fight takes place. This suggests that anabolic steroids can promote not only spur-of-the-moment aggression, but also premeditated violence.
Rank-and-file users choose testosterone because of its low cost and easy availability. Despite being declared controlled substances in 1991, anabolic steroids are widely available through personal trainers in gyms and can be purchased online from international sources.
It is estimated that as many as 3 million Americans have availed themselves of these outlets – far more than most people realize. Anabolic steroids are in high schools, fitness centers and “rejuvenation” clinics. A typical user is a young man in his late teens or early 20s. Among U.S. high school students, 4 percent to 6 percent of boys have used anabolic steroids, comparable to the rates of crack cocaine or heroin use. Among men in their 20s, that rate is even higher.
Instead of just worrying about doped athletes during each Olympic cycle, we should focus on how widespread the use of anabolic steroids is and how dangerous they are for any users – and even those around them.
Ruth Wood is chair of the department of cell and neurobiology at USC’s Keck School of Medicine.