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Once the dirty secret of a few elite athletes, anabolic steroids are now freely available to any schoolboy who wants to bulk up quickly. But juicing comes at a price – and not even doctors are sure what that is…
“We used to call it a ‘TEB’ programme: train hard, eat right, break the rules,” says Johann, a former policeman who standS two-metres tall, with broad shoulders and a bulky frame. He cuts an imposing figure – not the kind of build you’d think needs bulking up.
But from the walls of his lounge, photographs of a younger, more confident Johann look back into the room, with even bigger shoulders and a bodybuilder’s bulging chest and biceps. “You know, they say that for every week you take steroids, you gain a three-month advantage over guys who don’t use them,” he says. “Now why would you waste time doing it the hard way?” He spreads his enormous hands in an “I don’t know” gesture.
Johann did steroids for 15 years straight – three months on, three months off – buying Anapolin, Deca-Durabolin and Depo-Testosterone from crooked pharmacists and charging it to his policeman’s medical aid. “It’s easy,” he explains. “You just go to the doctor and tell him you’re feeling depressed, get a prescription for Prozac or something, and then your pharmacist charges it to your medical aid as an anti-depressant and gives you steroids instead. It’s just a matter of finding the right pharmacist.
“I went from an XL T-shirt to a 7XL T-shirt in two years on steroids. Do you know what it feels like, walking around the beach in a Speedo, knowing that everybody is looking at you? You feel like a god.”
And that’s the appeal – and the curse – of anabolics. As early as the late 1980s, medical researchers noted that anabolic steroids users included athletes “who took the drugs initially to gain muscle for bodybuilding, but who went on to develop depression whenever they discontinued [steroid] use”.
Unlike the short-lived highs of street drugs like heroin and cocaine, steroids have a longer-term “high”, directly related to the user’s self-esteem. This might explain why some continue using them despite the unpleasant, embarrassing and potentially fatal side effects.
And even though it’s illegal to buy anabolic steroids without a prescription, they’re very easy to find. We were able to buy steroids from two separate South African-based dealers who openly punt their wares on Facebook. We made contact with them; they sent us price lists; we placed our orders and then deposited the payment into their bank accounts (including R70 for the courier via the Post Office’s Speed Services).
We bought 10ml of Trenbolone Acetate – a horse steroid that is illegal for veterinary use in South Africa – for R500, as well as 50 10mg tablets of Dianabol, from one vendor, and 10ml injectable Dianabol for R400 from another.
Law enforcement officers who deal with steroid users tell stories about huge, bulked-up bodybuilders who cry like babies when they’re locked up in jail – where it’s impossible to stick to their strict regimen of multiple anabolic steroids. Some are taken daily and some taken every three or four days as part of a cumulative muscle-building course known in steroid jargon as a “cycle”.
“You’re not supposed to take it for more than three months straight,” says Johann. “Three months on, three months off. But in practice, for me, it ended up being three months heavy use and three months light use, because I ended up getting very irritable and impatient when I wasn’t using it. So I’d inject lighter doses on the off months. It’s not like there’s anything that keeps you addicted to it, but once the first muscles start showing and you get bigger and bigger, you just want to use more.”
Eventually, though, something had to give. “I quit because I was terrified that I’d hit my wife,” Johann says, “because the steroids made me so aggressive. It’s so much more dangerous than alcohol, because you’re already so big and strong, and you have all that self confidence.”
“Roid rage” became such a destructive force in the family of one Pretoria user that he became permanently estranged from his mother. “He had two heart attacks caused by steroids between the ages of 23 and 26,” she recalls. “I found the stuff in the fridge. When I confronted my son about it, he moved out. He’s obsessive about his body. He can’t walk past a mirror without looking at himself. He struggles with relationships; he’s an attractive young man, but his aggressive nature from the steriods drives girls away.”
You don’t have to spend much time In online forums before you encounter frantic messages like these: “NEED DESPERATE HELP two weeks after PCT (post-cycle treatment) balls shrink” and “Guys, what should I do? My balls are starting to get smaller,” found on found on steroidology.com.
These discussions usually ruminate on whether users should take drugs that counter these unwanted effects while they’re still taking steroids, or whether they should wait until their steroid cycle is over.
“You’ve got to be so careful with this stuff,” says one Cape Town based supplements and steroid dealer. “One bodybuilder I know, in his 40s, married, no kids, took steroids for years. He shoots blanks, and it’s from the steroids. No doubt.”
No steroid users we spoke to admitted to any adverse effects in the genital department, but it’s a well documented fact that anabolic steroids suppress the body’s natural testosterone manufacture, leading to shrunken testicles, low sperm count or even an absence of sperm. Compounding this, anabolic steroids also cause the excess manufacture of estrogens in the male body, leading to the growth of “man-boobs” and other female physical characteristics. This is known as gynecomastia – or “gyno”, in steroid-speak.
Research from the University of Helsinki’s Laboratory of Substance Abuse shows that steroids interfere with the production of gonadotrophin, a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that stimulates the gonads and controls reproductive activity. Most adverse effects disappear when users stop taking steroids, but researchers are unsure of the long-term effects on the reproductive system.
One of the main reasons that steroid users alternate periods of juicing up with periods of non-use is to allow their body to recover from that feminising knock to the system. Post-cycle, you need to take a whole new batch of drugs to inhibit the estrogen in your system. These usually include Tamoxifen (trade name Nolvadex), a drug used in the chemotherapy of breast cancer, and Clomiphene (trade name Clomid), a drug used in fertility treatment that stimulates the manufacture of gonadotrophin.
Given the havoc these substances play with your reproductive system, it’s no surprise that many black-market steroid dealers also run a side business trading in aromatase inhibitors, which slow the manufacture of estrogen in the body, and drugs to combat erectile dysfunction, such as Viagra and Cialis. Besides wild fluctuations in libido, steroids can cause insomnia and depression. And that just leads to more pill-popping.
It’s inevitable that a multitude of drugs in your system could lead to bad drug interactions and unexpected symptoms. But, it turns out, even the experts are baffled by the combined effects of so many chemicals.
We found a few sample steroid cycles and post-cycle treatments on a local website, anabolicsteroids.co.za, and sent them to the head of Pretoria University’s pharmacology department, Professor Oppel Greeff, to find out what the cumulative effects of so many different steroids and post-cycle treatment medications would be.
“The difficulty is that we actually know very little about these drugs,” he said. “They’re not legal for this kind of use, which makes it impossible to do any meaningful scientific research on the effects. Some of these cycles require you to take three, four, five different drugs simultaneously, which all remain in your system for different periods of time at different concentrations, and the interactions between all the different drugs just becomes impossible to predict.”
“Using steroids brings the same problems as using any other illegal substance,” adds Johannesburg-based sports physician Dr Rob Collins. “Most people say they’re just going to use one six-week course to get bigger. They get bigger, they go to gym, but next year they want to get a little bigger. Now it becomes a habit, and the more you use, the more likely you are to use stronger products for longer.”
So no surprises then that a Harvard University-led study in 2009 found that about 30% of anabolic-androgenic steroid users appeared to develop a dependence syndrome, “characterised by chronic [steroid] use despite adverse effects on physical, psychosocial or occupational functioning.”
It’s one thing for an adult male
to experiment with the off-label use of medication that can have such serious side effects, but steroid use in schoolboys brings a whole new set of problems. The manufacture of hormones are central in the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and even old hands in the steroids world are adamant that it’s not a good idea for children to take them.
Collins notes that it’s fairly easy to spot men who took steroids as boys: they’re big, but they tend to be short.
“In adolescents the growth plates fuse in different parts of the body at different ages,” he says. “These [growth plates] are what cause the bones to grow longer. So if you use steroids at an age before they are fused it can cause premature fusion and can actually stunt their growth. So you find, with a lot of kids who used steroids when they were young, they are quite big guys, but they’re short; they can’t get any taller because they fused their growth plates too soon.”
But the high stakes of schoolboy rugby, where your size determines whether or not you can make it onto the first team, into provincial trials, Craven Week, and hopefully the notebooks of Super Rugby talent scouts, has made the ballooning use of steroids among teenage rugby players almost inevitable. And while a lot of the pressure to perform comes from the schoolboys themselves, coaches, doctors and parents seem happy to get involved.
A promising Limpopo schoolboy rugby player, who is currently serving a two-year ban after testing positive for Dianabol at last year’s Craven Week, told his father that steroid use was tacitly encouraged at his school. “One of the teachers at school showed them a video that apparently claimed steroids are less hazardous to you than coffee and cigarettes,” the father recalls.
The boy attended a prominent boarding school and said that he had received the steroids in his hostel, from schoolmates who were also dealers. “At this very same Craven Week tournament where he was tested positive, I was sitting on the stand next to some boys talking about steroids,” his father says. “The one guy asked the other if he wasn’t worried that he’d be caught. He answered that he wasn’t, because of his doctor’s guidance, he’d never test positive.”
And although schools are reluctant to discuss the problem with outsiders, the overwhelming buy-in the South African Institute of Drug Free Sport (SAIDS) has received for its random drug testing in schools effectively amounts to a tacit admission that something is very wrong. According to SAIDS CEO Khalid Galant, the institute received so many requests from schools to be involved in the programme that its initial budget will not be sufficient; they’ll have to raise more funding to complete the programme.
A huge part of the problem with schoolboy steroid abuse is that they work so quickly – and so dramatically. “It was staggering how quickly he put on muscle,” says the mother of a matric boy who attended a prominent Joburg private school. “Within a matter of weeks he was noticeably bigger. And it’s not like he’s a small guy; all the men in our family are big men,” she says.
“We were very lucky though, to catch it early on. My son made the mistake of telling my daughter’s boyfriend about it, and that’s how I found out. I found a veterinary injectable drug and two lots of pills. The thing that worried me the most were the people who are selling the steroids. My son owed them money. In fact, that’s how I found out – he told a friend that he had to sell his X-Box to pay his dealer. I don’t know if these people sell drugs too.”
Dr Collins reckons the compulsion to use steroids for cosmetic reasons is far stronger among adolescents and young men than for sports use. “They see the picture on the front page of a publication like Men’s Health, of a person with this wonderful six-pack and a big chest, and they think that’s what normal is and that’s what they should look like. It’s the same with girls who want to look like Kate Moss, or whoever the latest model is, and become anorexic. School boy rugby players want to get bigger, but once you get to the professional rugby players, they get tested far too much. It’s just not worth it for them – if you weigh up the risk versus the potential gain.”
Especially in the teenage years, boys’ hormone levels are through the roof, so if you add more hormones to that, you get an exaggerated effect Collins says. “Boys do a lot of really stupid things – especially teenagers. You add steroids to that, they tend to do even more stupid things… they become more aggressive, more arrogant, and those effects combine to make them more confident. Now if you have a shy guy who suddenly becomes arrogant and aggressive, that might be good for him. But the danger is you don’t know how aggressive you will become and what you’re going to do when you’re that aggressive.
“Teenagers do a lot of stupid things with normal hormone levels. On steroids it’s like a worse teenager.”
At an anti-doping conference in Stockholm last
year, International Olympic Committee Medical Commission chairman Arne Ljungqvist said that the use of performance-enhancing drugs was now a public health problem rather than just a sporting problem, because of the “trickle down” effect from elite sportsmen to recreational users and high school athletes. And because of their addictive properties, steroids are still a threat when you’re in your twenties, thirties and older.
“Yes, it’s still dangerous,” says Collins. “The high blood pressure, cholesterol and cardiac effects are still there. The stunted growth will not be a big problem, and nor is the hormone problem, because once you’re out of your teenage years, your hormone levels start to drop, so by taking steroids you’re not compounding that effect.
“The other significant problem is that we really don’t know what these products can do in the long term. They are medically indicated for people with a shortage of hormones; they’re the equivalents of the hormone replacement therapy given to women after menopause. Their effects are not studied in people at the dosages and ages people use them for in bodybuilding or sport. It’s not possible to say that an 18-year-old who uses steroids has an 80% chance of liver cancer.
“By the same token, if a guy were using steroids for three years when he was 18, and he now gets prostate cancer at 55, people will say, ‘Shame, poor guy’, because he might possibly be expected to get prostate cancer at 75. But when he gets it at 55, no-one will say, ‘Oh, but he used steroids when he was 18’. We don’t know what the results might be. I’m speculating.”
“I worry about things like prostate tumours, because one of the treatments for that is to remove testosterone, so increasing testosterone increases the risk of tumours in the genital areas. We also worry about liver and kidney tumours.”
Johann doesn’t need a doctor or a pile of laboratory studies to tell him that steroids are bad for him.
“A friend of mine died of a heart attack. He was a heavy steroid user,” he says. “But all of us, his friends who also took steroids, we didn’t think for a moment that we should stop using. We just thought he died because he injected too much of the stuff. We never thought that we were in trouble.
“At one stage in my life I was injecting 100mg Deca (Durabolin) a week, and my blood pressure got really high. My doctor told me I was dying.”
“But in a couple of weeks I’m going to go back to gym and start training again. And I’m going to start using steroids again. I don’t care if I damage my heart. The feeling of being big again is stronger than the feeling that you’re going to die. I’ve already arranged my stuff.”