The Genie in a Bottle: Anabolic Steroids and Youth Athletes
In 1975, the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, banned the use of anabolic steroids in athletic competition. This move was followed relatively quickly by other major sports organizations.
I was born in 1978, which means that my entire life, steroids have been banned in most major competitions (by the term “steroids,” I mean anabolic steroids, not other forms such as legal anti-inflammatory corticosteroids). And yet every year, another scandal envelops another sport as some major figure is caught doping.
The list of athlete names might as well be a list of major record holders: Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, and A-Rod, to name a few. That's not even counting non-tested athletes in sports such as professional bodybuilding, CrossFit, and strongman, where many observers simply assume that many if not all competitors are "roided to the gills." What's more, consistently in sports like the UFC, you hear of the increasing use of testosterone replacement therapy, or TRT, which is the use of anabolics under a doctor's supervision.1 The market for other legal anabolics is huge, amounting to over $11 billion a year.2
Is it any question why there are studies showing that somewhere between three and six percent of teens have used anabolic steroids – or, for that matter, that this percentage is increasing by the year?3 With the societal pressures to look good, combined with the increased desire to perform as they see their sports heroes do on TV or YouTube, teens face a gigantic temptation to use anabolics. The potential monetary payoff could be huge, in the millions of dollars. And not all anabolic users are athletes, either, with many using merely to look good.
For the sake of this article, let's use the term "artificial anabolics" to mean any chemical substance introduced to the body so as to mimic or artificially increase the levels of blood serum testosterone. This does not include so-called "natural" anabolics, such as sleep, resistance training, and spending time with attractive members of your desired gender. Neither does it include non-anabolic strength assistance substances, such as creatine, multi-vitamins, and protein. While there are some in the media who state that even using protein powder or creatine is wrong for teens, I would like to focus on artificial anabolics.
As a parent or coach, you need to take proactive steps to educate youth athletes about the problems of using anabolics. The reasons are numerous, but here are three of the most important ones:
1. It’s Illegal
Morality aside, most artificial anabolics are illegal drugs if taken without a doctor's prescription (and few medical doctors will write a script for anabolics for a minor, except perhaps to treat delayed puberty). There should be no reason for a young athlete to risk a criminal record just so they can perform better in their sport or look good for their peers.
2. It’s Bad Sportsmanship
The debate of whether steroids should be banned or not aside, every major sport available to high schoolers and younger athletes does not allow the use of artificial anabolics. Even many legal supplements are banned under NCAA or WADA rules.4 And few universities will take the risk of sullying their reputations by offering a scholarship to a player who has been shown to be dirty. It doesn't matter if the testing is insufficient, They are still playing Russian Roulette with their future athletic chances.
3. It’s Unhealthy
Perhaps most important are the health consequences.5 While artificial anabolics have benefits and drawbacks for all populations at any age, for teens and younger children the potential drawbacks are more severe and more numerous. In addition to the common side effects - deepening of the voice, acne flare ups, gynecomastia, and movement of hair (baldness on top, hair growing everywhere else) - teens risk permanent effects due to the fact that their bodies are not yet physically mature. The permanent form of the body is not set, and this extra pliability means the effects are greater. For all users, this includes cholesterol problems and potential damage to the heart and liver. There is also a higher risk of depression once someone does try to stop using steroids.
For female athletes, the masculinizing effects of anabolics can be irreversible. Her voice is never going to be anything but a baritone, her bone structure will grow and fix itself into a more masculine shape, but worst of all, the hell played upon her reproductive system by all that testosterone means that the female athlete may permanently render herself less fertile or even infertile.
For the male teen, the long-term effects are just as numerous, and once again, they primarily center around the hell played with the reproductive system. Teens who use artificial anabolics have a major risk of becoming dependent upon them in order to maintain normal testosterone levels. Going off the anabolics causes blood serum levels to plunge because the natural testosterone producers (the testicles) have more or less atrophied and are unable to produce what is needed. With that, of course, comes infertility, hormonal imbalances and all the emotional problems related to them, and possibly even impotence.6
The morality of using anabolics is a Pandora's box that will probably never be fully settled. As for adult athletes, it is hard to point a finger or give morality advice. If someone is fifty years old and figures that life with TRT is better than life without it, I'm not going to stand in his way. If an adult athlete knows of and is willing to take the professional risks of using a banned artificial anabolic, I'm not going to go beyond saying, "Don't come crying to me if you get caught." But for teen and youth athletes, the risks are higher and longer lasting. I encourage every parent, coach, and official in teen or youth sports to do their best to make sure that the athletes under their watch do not engage in the use of artificial anabolics. Check for warning signs, ask questions, and test if needed. You may get some nasty words or looks, but sometimes it’s necessary.
1. Bleacher Report. "TRT Might Be Legal, but It Is Still Cheating." Accessed 6 April, 2014. ng
2. Cleveland Clinic. "Testosterone Replacement Therapy." Accessed 6 April, 2014.
3. Nutra Ingredients-USA. "Supplement sales hit $11.5 billion in U.S." Accessed 6 April, 2014.
4. NPR. "More Teens Take Steroids To Trade Fat For Muscle." Accessed 6 April, 2014.
5. World Anti Doping Agency. "Prohibited List." Accessed 6 April, 2014.
6. NCAA. "2013-14 NCAA Banned Drugs." Accessed 6 April, 2014.
7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Teens and Steroids: A Dangerous Combo." Accessed 6 April, 2014.
8. NIDA for Teens. "Drug Facts: Anabolic Steroids." Accessed 6 April, 2014.
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