Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bigger, Stronger, Faster -- a movie about steroids

I just watched Bigger, Stronger, Faster which is about steroid use in America. I really liked it. The guy who made the movie, Chris Bell, is an amateur weightlifter who wanted to go pro but never managed to break through.

I've heard the movie is nuanced about steroids. No, that's not it. The movie is mostly pro-steroids -- or pro-choice in regards to steroids. Bell, himself, took steroids briefly but was uncomfortable with the moral issues and stopped . . . but both of his brothers took and continue to take steroids.

The movie lays it out pretty clearly: no drugs are safe, but steroids are amongst the safest there are. Most of what is said by steroids in the press and by the government are lies designed to scare people away from steroids. There is simply no scientific information that makes steroids more dangerous than ibuprofen or vitamin C. Additionally, the benefits for using steroids far and away outweigh the side-effects, generally.

By far and away, the most interesting parts of the movie, for me, were the deconstruction of the idea of "cheating" in the United States. The go-to guy for this, in the movie, is Arnold Schwartzenegger. Here's this guy whose whole career was launched by steroids. Yet, he's also the guy who has repeatedly said that through hard work you can do anything. But I doubt anyone doubts that if Arnold hadn't roided up early and often, he would not been governor of California. No Mr. Universe at 19, no movie career, no movie career, no popularity to sneak in a quick novelty governorship.

The movie also says things I've said about training -- about how high-tech training in the US will, for instance, duplicate the effects of illegal drugs. The case he used was the production of red blood cells. The movie lists four ways to improve your red blood cell count, and thus your endurance: sleeping in a hypobaric chamber, training at the US Olympic training center six thousand feet above sea level, blood doping and taking a drug that just increases your red blood cell count. Two of them are "legal" and two aren't, but they all do the same thing. Clearly, I agree with this and go quite a bit farther.

There is also a great scene where he talks about how drugs are used in other areas to enhance performance. Beta blockers are apparently used by a lot of musicians to stop stage fright. One of the people flat out said that if not for beta blockers they wouldn't be able to perform . . . while also identifying steroids as cheating whereas beta blockers used in auditions is not. Also mentioned was Adderall used by students to study longer and more efficiently . . . which is pretty much exactly what anabolic steroids do for your muscles, they let you work out harder and more efficiently. So, why are steroids bad and Adderall just another thing that's prescribed? Why are steroids different than beta blockers?

Obviously, I'm pretty sympathetic towards this point of view. The view the US has on drugs is pretty crazy . . . and it's crazy all over, too. Steroids is cheating, whereas merely submitting to the tyranny of nature, where some are strong and some are not, is okay? I don't buy that. I've never bought that. Why should anyone? Isn't the function of medical science to improve our health and well-being . . . a necessarily subjective standard?

The idea seems to be "if it's not broke, don't fix it". But that's crazy. It's not that you're not alright with being who you are, it's that there's also nothing wrong with wanting to change and improve yourself. And it's definitely wrong to demand that others behave as you behave -- how much less sensible is it, then, to bow to some arbitrary happenstance of nature?

Additionally, we use technology all the time to change ourselves. That's what medical science does. There are lots of things out there that are just horrible for us -- broken legs are natural, cancer is natural, congestive heart failure is natural, but we don't hesitate to use medical science to stop what is "natural" from occurring in those situations. Likewise, we are all for certain uses of science and technology for improving oneself, things like the extremely high tech diets professional athletes use these days. Oh, sure, it's of dubious if that works, but people are comfortable if it does work (I say it's dubious if it works because in high level sports, some people seriously think that nearly 100% of the athletes use performance enhancing drugs, so all that talk about the efficacy of high-tech nutrition and supplements might be the cover to justify the incredible performance of top level athletes when the truth it is it's mostly steroids, growth hormones and amphetamines). But if you "go too far", you're seen as deviating from "nature" and that's . . . bad? I don't think so and the movie doesn't think so, either, or at least it gives people the choice to decide.

In general, I thought it was a good movie. The narrator was charming in a natural, unpretentious way and he handled the difficult subject with sensitivity, humor and occasionally a little bravery (such as when his mother, in particular, condemned steroids but was then incredibly proud of her son for bench pressing 705 pounds . . . whereas her non-steroided son benched about 170 pounds less). I also more or less agree with Bell, so that helps, of course.

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