When Bad People Happen to Good Drugs

By Jordan Heller 01/27/13

The general verdict that Lance Armstrong’s cheating is despicable doesn’t mean that steroids are inherently bad. 

Lance outruns the truth?

Lance Armstrong’s Oprah Winfrey interview earlier this month did nothing to repair his well-earned reputation as a cheat and a scoundrel—and may only have served as a platform for the disgraced cyclist to spread more lies. But tucked inside an otherwise weaselly and watered-down confessional, Armstrong touched on something in the debate over doping that rarely, if ever, gets talked about: the fact that these substances can actually be good for you.

“I thought surely I’m running low [on testosterone following the cancer battle],” he told Winfrey, painting his doping, at least in part, as hormone replacement therapy.

Self-serving as that statement was, Winfrey didn’t challenge it—perhaps because she knew it to be true. The same testosterone, or anabolic steroid, that helped put Armstrong’s mug on a Wheaties box is the same substance that would have helped him bounce back from testicular cancer—it’s the testicles, after all, that serve as the body’s primary source for testosterone.

But this is not to debate whether Armstrong cheated but rather to ask if the scrutiny with which we treat dopers in sport is giving these wonder drugs a bad name?

As I discovered in the reporting I did for an article I wrote four years ago—which questioned the criminalization of steroids—testosterone is all too often dismissed as a devil’s shortcut. Actually, the testosterone a man’s body naturally produces is the very essence of general health and well being. Specifically, it helps maintain sex drive, mental and physical energy levels, bone density and, yes, muscle mass and strength. After the age of 30, a man’s testosterone level begins to decline; just as his cholesterol level rises. The question I asked: Why does society condone taking a pill to keep cholesterol in check, while at the same time stigmatizing doing essentially the same thing for testosterone?

As a steroid user of 50 years told me then, "If you can take something that allows you to continue to wake up and smell the roses, why wouldn't you?" 

Armstrong, of course, wasn’t just smelling the roses: In addition to making him stronger and faster, his steroid use would have cut down on his recovery time between workouts, allowing him to train harder and longer. But this is not to debate whether Armstrong cheated—his doping indeed gave him an illegal and competitive edge—but rather to ask if the scrutiny with which we treat dopers in sport is giving these wonder drugs a bad name?

Underlying the public’s outrage against Armstrong is the idea that the substances he took are inherently dangerous, and that, as a role model, Armstrong and other elite-level, steroid-using athletes are putting our children at risk.

It was this emotion—coupled with Ben Johnson getting caught doping at the 1988 Summer Olympics—that led to action in 1990, when the US Congress passed the Anabolic Steroid Control Act, which classified such substances as Schedule III drugs. This made them illegal to possess without a legitimate medical reason and a prescription from a licensed physician.

No doubt, our representatives on the Hill were pressured by their constituents—weeping mothers with pleas of, “Think of the children!” And then there are the nightmare scenarios that continued to plague steroid users throughout the ’90s and aughts: NFL legend Lyle Alzado’s deadly brain tumor; one-time Major League Baseball MVP Ken Caminiti’s fatal heart attack at age 40; the teenage suicide of high school athlete Taylor Hooton; and pro wrestler Chris Benoit, whose so-called “roid rage” was allegedly responsible for him murdering his wife and son before offing himself. 

To be sure, these are the tragedies that run through our minds when we consider the case of Lance Armstrong; but there’s no medical evidence linking any of these deaths to steroids. In hindsight, Benoit's tragic end smells like traumatic brain injury, which has no reported link to steroids; nor does Armstrong’s testicular cancer, for that matter. And as for the Anabolic Steroid Control Act, it passed despite the fact that expert witnesses from the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Food and Drug Administration, and the American Medical Association all testified and were opposed to any such criminalization.

Dr. Norm Fost, an M.D. who served on President Clinton’s Health Care Task Force, got quite animated on the subject in 2008, when he participated in a Bob Costas-moderated debate on performance-enhancing drugs in sport.

“Lyle Alzado died of a brain tumor,” he said. “Then the New York Times and Sports Illustrated told us that this was due to steroids, without a single quote from an informed physician or a single source showing any association with steroids … because there is none!”

In the noise over Armstrong—and for good measure, let’s throw in Roger Clemens’, Barry Bonds’, and Sammy Sosa’s recent denial of entry to the Hall of Fame—the reputation of a drug that has proven benefits for society at large continues to suffer.

Sure, Lance’s doping may have led to the egg currently—and perhaps permanently—plastered onto his face, but let’s not blame it on steroids, which, quite impressively, led to a cancer survivor who was at one time knocking on death's door winning the Tour de France seven times. And by the looks of him, he still seems to be in pretty good physical shape.

Jordan Heller is a journalist based in New York City. Most recently, he wrote about animal rights extremists for Gawker. He can be reached at [email protected].

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Jordan Heller is a journalist based in New York City. Most recently, he wrote about animal rights extremists for Gawker. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can find Jordan on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter