Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Let's talk steroids!

I'm starting to wind myself up for the Georges St-Pierre vs. Josh Koscheck fight on December 11 and I was doing some background reading. Apparently, BJ Penn opined to Koscheck that GSP uses steroids.

It was not explained how a guy who lives in Hawaii knows what a guy who lives in Quebec does or does not take and, really, the whole exchange sounded like sour grapes. Both Penn and Koscheck have lost to St-Pierre. Penn, twice. However, the truth is, it's quite possible that St-Pierre roids up . . . though the same can be said of Penn and Koscheck. A lot of professional athletes hit the steroids.

It makes sense, of course. Someone comes to a pro athlete and says that, for a couple of grand a year, tops, they can make that athlete stronger, faster and with better endurance, that they can roll back the clock and return to an aging athlete the physical prowess of their youth, that athlete is going to seriously consider steroids. After all, the pressure to perform is intense. The crowds want to see people doing things that we have no chance of doing. We want to see feats of strength, speed and endurance more fit for superheroes than mortals. The people who can deliver that kind of performance stand to make a lot of money as well as gain ridiculous praise for it . . . if they can only keep their steroid habits secret.

For my part, I don't much care if athletes take steroids. Go ahead, guys! Gear up! But the arguments against steroids, and other "performance enhancing drugs", are two-fold. The first is, it's "cheating". The second is, it's not healthy. Both arguments are bullshit.

If you follow the Olympics, you will find that the US does very, very well in sports, which is weird because our population is in the worst shape in the world. Americans are, as a group, fatter than people anywhere else -- yet we excel in sports? While the US is out of shape, we are a very rich country. So our best athletes get the best training. We have large, well-funded gyms with all the best equipment, staffed by sports nutritionists and sports doctors and kinethesiologists. Whereas in countries that have much fitter, but poorer, populations, they lack this. So, the US does better than virtually any other country on earth because we happen to be rich (and this is true of virtually any rich country, of course). While this is not technically cheating, it's definitely not fair. It isn't cheating only because the rules don't give a damn about fair.

(Not to mention that almost all Olympic sports are European sports. The athletic games of other cultures are notoriously poorly represented in the Olympics. There are a few token events like judo, but almost all of the events are sports with cultural significance only to "the West". How is that fair? To make Asians and Africans play our sports? That's not cheating, either. That's "fair".)

My point is the idea that athletic competitions are even and fair is foolish. Rich countries can, and do, simply buy events through the mechanism of providing their athletes with kinds of training, diet, medical care and conditioning poor countries cannot.

In this environment, the objection to steroids becomes that, with them, even people in poor countries would do as well as people in rich countries. They are so powerful and so cheap that all other training aids become far, far less significant. You don't really need a really careful diet if you're roided up -- your body will roll those calories over into muscle all by itself in the normal course of exercise.

Indeed, the injunction against steroids was initially anti-communist. Communist nations were roiding up their athletes before it was against the rules of competition to do it, which gave the communist nations huge boosts, obviously. Inventing the argument that steroids weren't "fair" -- when in truth the problem is they were communist -- Western nations, lead by the US, were able to make steroids against international competition rules. This isn't hypothetical. Anti-steroid rules were put in place because the people who control the international athletic bodies are overwhelmingly anti-communist. (This history of drug regulation is chock full of this kind of thing; the earliest anti-drug laws in the US were really anti-Chinese laws, and the earliest anti-marijuana laws were really anti-Mexican laws. It's crazy.)

So I just can't buy the fairness argument. If we were really interested in fair athletics competitions, we'd work to insure that training was standardized. You see something like this in car races. Nowadays, car races aren't about testing technology but testing the drivers, the cars are very standardized, nearly mechanically identical. You could do the same thing with all training for all sports but no one even mentions this kind of possibility, at least not in America which, of course, greatly benefits from the current rules environment.

The fallback argument against steroids then becomes health. This is, if anything, an even more idiotic argument.

Without doubts, steroids have side-effects. Some of them, like "roid rage", seem to have little basis in fact. It is true oral steroids can damage the liver, but the onset of symptoms is clear and easily reversed by discontinuing the drugs and generally the result of incredible overuse. Massive overuse of steroids causes damage to a valve of the heart, but that's also correctable and only shows up in massive doses. There are also lesser effects, like oily skin and temporary bitch tits.

A steroid program also throws your body's hormonal homeostatis out of whack for a while after you discontinue use. Your body recovers in a couple of weeks and the biggest "threat" of this is losing the gains you made under steroids.

(Women face other problems with steroids, such as "virilization", stuff like growing beards and permanent enlargement of the clitoris and require special care in use. This is where the "gender tests" idea for female athletes came from; early female steroid users, many of them East German, had various virilization effects.)

On the other hand, steroids also have many, many benefits. Steroids improve a person's immune system. They promote, kind of obviously, the development of lean muscle mass. They improve red blood cell count, increasing oxygenation of the blood and promoting greater endurance. They improve flexibility and help with healing injuries. They also increase a man's libido and might help with clarity of thought. I'm not making this stuff up! All of these properties are present in even very moderate doses.

Oh, and to retouch the "cheating" issue -- using steroids is hard. Because your body is thrown into hormonal imbalance when you use them, when you stop using them it takes a while for your body to regain homeostasis. So it's really easy to lose all the gains you made while on steroids if you're not deeply committed to exercise. You generally have to work out harder after a steroid program than during it, especially during that time when your body is readjusting to hormonal homeostasis.

Which means, medically, it's not possible to say "steroids are uniformly bad". They have side effects, yeah, and some of them are unpleasant and a couple are actually dangerous (though they present only in massive use). But when you look at the list of positive effects it's hard, I think, to just dismiss steroids as bad for a person's health.

This is crazier because many high-level competitions are also awful for your health. How many football players have knees that resemble jigsaw puzzles? What about skiiers? Boxing, as a sport, is entirely about getting punched, usually to the head. Those guys face such happy conditions as detached retinas, skull fractures, brain swelling, broken knuckles, etc. Yet, despite the various physical damage that they do to themselves that regular people don't do, they're generally in much, much better shape than we are. That a training technique carries with it some (extremely manageable) risk is simply irrelevant considering what athletes already do to themselves.

So, does Georges St-Pierre use steroids? I dunno. Looking at the guy, I can't dismiss the possibility. He looks really good and he looks that way all the time. On the other hand, he's also famous for his work ethic. After getting his head punched off by Matt Serra, he was back in the gym after two days. In interviews, he has made it clear he views himself as a martial artist and not a fighter, the distinction being that he's always in training, looking for ways to improve the art. But, man, he does look ripped, like, all the time. Given his job, you can't automatically reject the idea. (Just like I can't reject it for Josh Koscheck or BJ Penn. It's their job, too.)

What I do know is I'm looking forward to GSP knocking the shit out of Koscheck. I hope Georges St-Pierre pounds a hole in Koscheck's skull. I want a bloody finishing move or at least a rag doll knockout like the one GSP did to Matt Hughes when GSP Cro-kicked his head off. Just sayin'.


  1. I can add that for a female-bodied person, at least, there's the added risk of infertility when on steroids. At least while on them, but in some cases, ovulation doesn't resume after a period on steroids. So if one cares about reproductive capabilities, there's that. Also a so far uncertain possibility of higher risk of some cancers, leading to a need for frequent check-ups.

    Not as such a point against, but just to add the info.

  2. AFAIK, from my study on steroids and the male physiology, the reports of increased cancer risk is either v. weak or completely fabricated but repeated ad nauseum despite a lack of concrete scientific proof.

  3. And thanks for bring up more of the bad side-effects for women. They should stick to hGH. ;)

  4. Steroids can actually help patients with muscle dystrophy.

    Steroids Canada

  5. I already buy into the idea that steroids are, generally, good for you . . . but it seems sorta obvious that they should be used for muscular dystrophy, amirite? ;D