Are Steroids as 'American as Apple Pie'?

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Chris Bell, the writer, director and star of the documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American, explains why the practice of using steroids in our society is no big deal. In fact, it's as "American as apple pie."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Chris Bell knows anabolic steroids. He's tried them himself and both of his brothers are unapologetic long-time steroid users. In a new documentary film, "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American," Chris visits with a few who argue that steroids are bad for your health and bad for sports and with many more who say it's no big deal. In fact, it's as American as apple pie.

Chris Bell joins us in just a moment. If you're a coach, an athlete, a gym rat, call and tell us your experience with steroids, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation on our blog, that's at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Chris Bell is at NPR West in Culver City, California. He is the writer, director and star of "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American," and Chris, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. CHRIS BELL (Writer, Director, and Star of the Documentary "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American"): Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: And your basic argument, it seems to me, is that, well, steroids have been infused, if you will, throughout American society throughout much of the past 20 or 30 years.

Mr. BELL: Yeah, you know, I didn't really have an argument, so to speak. I actually wanted to explore this from the inside out, so I started with my family, just to ask the questions and find out what the deal was with steroids. So, you know, being around the gym and being around it, you know, for the past 15 years, being a power lifter, I just wanted to explore the issue and let people decide for themselves what they think afterwards.

CONAN: Yet you interview an awful lot of people who say, I've been using it for 30 years and have never felt better in my life.

Mr. BELL: Yeah, you know, we actually interviewed, you know, pretty much both sides of the coin, and I think that when you come away from the film, a lot of people say, wow, I got the message that this was a pro-steroid movie. And I said, well, you know, if you got that message, maybe the fact of the matter is that maybe these drugs aren't as dangerous as we thought originally.

What I like to pose the question is how they affect society, not necessarily the health effects of them, but how they affect society as a whole, just thinking that we have to be bigger, stronger, faster than everyone else.

CONAN: Well, you date that back, I guess, to a figure from your childhood, a wrestler by the name of the Iron Sheik, and this goes back, I guess, to 1979 and the hostage crisis with Iran is, I guess, when he became popular and eventually won the championship belt. And let's listen to a short excerpt from your film.

(Soundbite from movie "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American")

Mr. BELL: You see, Reagan may have freed the hostages, but the Sheik still had the championship belt. There was only one man that could save us.

(Soundbite of song "Real American")

ANNOUNCER 1: From Venice Beach, California, the incredible Hulk Hogan.

ANNOUNCER 2: And the Hulkster rips off that shirt.

Mr. BELL: With three minutes into the match, Hulk Hogan was locked in the dreaded camel clutch.

ANNOUNCER 2: It's over for the Hulk.

Mr. BELL: This move would snap the back of a normal man, but this wasn't a normal man. This was Hulk Hogan, and he was fighting for our country.

CONAN: And you'll be unsurprised to learn that Hulkster emerged triumphant in that bout and many others before he later turned into a bad guy.

But I wanted to ask you, Chris Bell, the idea that, well, first of all, those matches might just have been scripted, and also the revelation that Hulk Hogan, who said, say your prayers and go to bed early and eat your greens, work hard, play by the rules. Well, that he turned out to have taken steroids.

Mr. BELL: Yeah, you know, that's the question I ask in the film is when you have all these heroes that are larger than life, and we expect so much of them, we put these guys on a pedestal constantly, say that guy's a winner and he'll do anything to win, and then at some point we find out that they took steroids, to me as a kid, that was quite disappointing. It was like finding out there was no Santa Claus or no Easter Bunny. So - or finding out that wrestling was fake, for that matter. A lot of things that we believe in aren't necessarily the truth, and that's kind of what I wanted to explore in the film.

CONAN: And one of the principal figures, and unfortunately you did not get an interview with him, but one of the principal figures is Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Mr. BELL: Yeah, absolutely. You know, he's the governor of California and I would hope that, you know, Arnold would have something to say about this issue. He's the one guy I think in you know, all of government that could actually step forward and do something to help this matter, but instead, you know, hides behind the fact that hey, look my position on steroids is very clear. I don't need an interview with you and you know we tried several times to get that interview and weren't able to do it. So I wish that he would step forward because I think that there's a lot of kids that are struggling with this issue and especially in California.

CONAN: Interesting though, one of your brothers, and again, both are, I said before, unapologetic and that's not quite right because there's some apology involved, but nevertheless one of them is a football coach, at least in one scene in the movie, and does not admit to his kids that he takes steroids, that he thinks they're a good thing. In fact, he tells them he doesn't take steroids and neither should they.

Mr. BELL: Yeah, you know that's a conflict of the film and that's why I said that I think it's - we present everything because otherwise, you know, I could have kept that out of the film, but I think that that was very interesting, the complexities of my brother coaching football and telling kids that you know, hey, you should stay off the steroids, but he's doing them. And you know, there are reasons that he says that he said that in the mid - in the film. He actually has gone back and told a lot of those kids on a one-to-one basis that he does it as an adult. But it is really hard to explain to kids the difference between an adult doing something and a kid doing it.

And the other thing, you know, that I said about my brother in the film is he was actually at the time when he was doing steroids, he was doing them illegally, and I think that's the biggest problem with all this. We've driven this behavior underground and we have all these guys doing it illegally and we don't really know much about it and we need to explore it more.

CONAN: And your other brother makes toward the end of the film one last attempt as lifter to get - was it 700 pounds?

Mr. BELL: Yeah. 705 pounds.

CONAN: And he says to his wife, this will be the last time I take steroids and will get it up, and he does triumph in getting over 700 pounds.

Mr. BELL: Yeah. It's, you know, it's interesting to see somebody can push their bodies to that level and that's a part of the film I wanted to explore as well, as I, you know, we look at an athlete and we say you like, look, Barry Bonds has hit 756 homeruns because he was on steroids and it's not necessarily the case. You know, you still have to have a lot of athletic ability, and steroids allow you to train harder and so these guys are training harder, training longer and that goes to you know, also to the question of if these drugs actually allow athletes to extend their careers.

You know, they're not allowed to take them for rehabilitation purposes, they're not allowed to take them if they get injured. And they are some of the best drugs for that so - and that's been shown in a lot of the research that we did, three years of research, to find that these things could actually be used in a safe you know, safe manner for treating athletes. Yet, you know, they're not allowed to treat their on-the-job injuries with anabolic steroids, but they can inject corteco steroids they can take, you know...

CONAN: A doctor can inject corteco steroids.

Mr. BELL: Yeah. You know...

CONAN: And a doctor can give them opiates.

Mr. BELL: That's when - that's basically the same thing that I am saying. We're not - they are not allowed to be treated in that manner by a doctor with anabolic steroids. This with corteco steroids or just with, you know, powerful opiates.

CONAN: You also say, what's the difference between steroids and Lasik surgery for Tiger Woods? Well, you know, before shouldn't you - should wear glasses? I mean, you know, what's the difference between glasses can make and Lasik surgery?

Mr. BELL: Well, yeah.

CONAN: Except that glasses don't fog up.

Mr. BELL: Yeah. You have a lot of guys out there that are sports purists that say, you know, you're only suppose to play with what God gave you, so I'm just pointing out if that's going to be your argument that you're only suppose to play with what God gave you, what are all these other enhancements? Like for example, Tiger Woods' Lasik eye surgery gave him not just, you know, perfect vision like as if he didn't need glasses, it gave him better than perfect vision. So his vision is 20/15 in a game where you're relying on your depth perception. I just ask a simple question of is that a performance enhancement? I'm not really making the judgment on it. I just ask the question.

CONAN: Chris Bell is the writer, director, and star of "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American." And if you'd like to join the conversation on steroids, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's see if we can get a caller on the line, and why don't we begin with Keith. And Keith is with us from Lake Tahoe in California.

KEITH (Caller): Hi. Look, I was calling in regards to the labeling to where most people getting their hands on the stuff nowadays really don't know the difference between real and the fakes where in the '90s there were incredible publications that pointed out the real and the fake. And now finding...

CONAN: The real drugs and the fake drugs?

KEITH: Correct. And as far as people, a lot of people don't even know what they're looking for so they go ahead and take it, to where the publications nowadays, I find, don't seem to point out the real and the fake labels and I have a lot of experience with (unintelligible) testosterone, CPNA. And those things are finding their way back into their lives now to be a little faster, a little stronger, have a little better time running the trails. I find that the labels, especially nowadays, we're finding a lot of drugs from other countries. What do you guys think about the fake drugs and what people are putting in their bodies?

CONAN: I'm just saying, Keith, it sounds to me like you're suggesting that in fact, by driving this underground, the federal authorities have made it difficult to - just in terms of consumer information?

KEITH: That's exactly right.

CONAN: All right.

KEITH: In the '90s there was a lot of...

CONAN: That's what we're hearing. What do you make of that, Chris Bell? Is he right?

Mr. BELL: Yeah, you know, absolutely. I think that - and that's a big problem what he's talking about is the use of illegal drugs, so I don't condone that at all and I don't, you know, we talk about that in the movie, the fact that it is illegal and you know, we just said there was a lot of good information out there.

There's a book out now, you know, "Anabolics 2008" by Bill Llewellyn, which has a lot of information on these drugs. But like I said, you know, how can you ask the government to give you research on, you know, what's real, you know, what steroids are real and what steroids are fake? You know that information is usually provided by like a rogue underground of steroid users and you know you have to seek that information out, but I definitely don't agree with that.

I think that people, if they want to use steroids for certain different reasons, should go to a doctor and have their doctor examine them and figure out if that's something that they should be doing.

CONAN: Keith...

KEITH: But being that most of the usage in reality is underground, you know, people I've known people who have injected sugar water.

Mr. BELL: Jesus...

KEITH: And to find out that the label was just completely...

CONAN: Bogus.

KEITH: A bogus product.

CONAN: Yeah, all right.

Mr. BELL: Well that's right. That's what I said that you know, the Llewellyn, Bill Llewellyn's book, "Anabolics 2008," is a great reference guide if you know, for people like - you know, like I said, if you're going to do it illegally, that's the place to look. And in that book in that tells you, you know, how the labels differ and he goes over all the different kinds of steroids and things like that.

CONAN: We're talking with Chris Bell whose film is "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get John on the line. John's on the line from New York.

JOHN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, John.

JOHN: OK. well, I had a nephew who was one hell of an athlete and he was injury-prone and started doing a lot of steroids and I noticed a change in his body. He got really big and he eventually committed suicide. I was just wondering if there was any connection between steroid use and suicidal tendencies.

CONAN: Well, Chris Bell, you go and interview the father of presume - I think the most famous case of an athlete who was involved in steroids and later killed himself and you later visit with him in the film.

Mr. BELL: Yeah. You know, first of all, it's a shame about your nephew and it's a shame about what happened to Taylor Hooton, as well.

Taylor Hooton was a 17-year-old kid who committed suicide after coming off the steroids and I think, you know, one of the things that we have to look at, you have to examine everything on a case-to-case basis and to - in the case of Taylor Hooton, he was also on Lexapro, which is an antidepressant with the black box warning that says these drugs could cause suicidal thoughts in teenage, you know, adolescents. So - and I don't want to blame it on the antidepressants, either. I don't want to be that guy.

I want to basically look at it in a fair way, but I just went to Donald Hooton and I asked the questions. Seeing that 5,000 kids every year in America, approximately, commit suicide, out of those kids this one was blamed on steroids, what are the other, you know, 4,999...

CONAN: Well, apparently 4,998, John's nephew.

Mr. BELL: Yeah, well, absolutely. I mean, that depends on, you know, and we have to take a look at everything on a case-to-case basis and try to examine, you know, if these drugs do have these psychological effects, what are they? And we need more research on that stuff and we now...

CONAN: That's a point repeatedly made in the movie. The research simply isn't being done on this and a lot of other illegal drugs so people don't know the answers to this. John, again, we're sorry for the loss of your nephew.

JOHN: I appreciate that, and he was a great athlete before he took steroids, you know, other than he used to get hurt a lot, but...

Mr. BELL: Yeah. I think a lot of us are great athletes. My mom said in the movie, I don't know why you guys would ever turn - because I've tried steroids for a brief period of time. My mom says, why would you ever turn to steroids? You could bench press, you know, 425 pounds without using them, and I said, well, I always wanted more.

And that's what I called the film. You know, we call the film "The Side Effects of Being American," and that's a big part of it. It's just like this idea that we have to be great drove me and my brothers to use steroids.

CONAN: Here's an email from Amanda in San Francisco. "As a Division One athlete in college, my coach always told me to live by this simple rule: if your competitor has trained harder than you than she will win. If you've put in more work than your competitor then you will prevail. It all boils down to the ultimate dedication, perseverance and just pure hours of intensity of training. It is the straightforwardness of this sacrifice made by athletes that inspires awe in the rest of us.

If you add performance-enhancing drugs to this equation, it no longer holds true. Therefore, sporting competition is forever changed. The winners should be the most dedicated athletes, not those with access to the most cutting-edge drugs."

Mr. BELL: Yeah. You know, some people would disagree with that. Some people say that you know, in the world of athletics that everyone's doing it. You know, I talked to Ben Johnson and we see Ben Johnson was caught, you know, basically cheating, as I say...

CONAN: And you played him as a scapegoat.

Mr. BELL: Well, yeah. I mean, if you look at the - you know that race that you know basically most of those guys in that race were dirty or doing some sort of drug that they shouldn't be doing including Carl Lewis. And in the film we go and talk to Carl Lewis about the fact that he failed the drug test, as well, should he have been banned from the Olympics? So you know, the problem is that in a perfect world...

CONAN: Not for the same drug, though.

Mr. BELL: No, for stimulants that were totally against the rules as well, just as against the rules as steroids are. But you know, I would like to say that what Amanda was saying is that in a perfect world that would be the way we like to look at sports. It's pure, it's clean, you know, we have this ethical code between us athletes and nobody's going to cheat and that would be great if it was like that.

The problem is we don't live in that perfect world. We live in a very competitive society that really pushes the envelope and, you know, a lot of athletes - people are willing to take the shortcuts.

CONAN: Interesting you mentioned your mother who was distraught to discover that two of her sons were using steroids and that another had tried. And there's a very moving scene where she talks to you about it. Yet there's another scene again where your brother finally triumphs and presses the 705 pounds, where she and your father are both cheering as he does this accomplishment on steroids, and he also had told his wife previously this was going to be the last thing he would do on steroids. After that he was done with it. Then he also tells you afterwards, you know, I'll be back on them.

Mr. BELL: Yeah, you know, I said there's a clash in America between doing the right thing and being the best and so you can't always do both. You know, sometimes you can, but not all the times, so a lot of times you have to, you know, make a sacrifice, you make a choice if you're going to skirt the rules or not and you know, with - and my brother's case, that's what I always worry about. He has, you know, he actually went off the steroids and him and his wife had another child, but I always worry, you know, in the film, I'll probably go back on them. So you don't know if he's going to go back on them or not, you know.

And my older brother has the same problem in and out up and down with drugs so I ask the question in this film more of like - look, even if steroids weren't dangerous at all, it's still dangerous to rely on a drug for the way you feel about yourself or your performance, and that's the - you know, kind of what I'm trying to hit home in this film.

CONAN: Chris Bell, thanks very much for being with us. Appreciate your time.

Mr. BELL: Great, thanks for having me.

CONAN: Chris Bell, writer and director of "Bigger, Stronger, Faster: The Side Effects of Being American." With us today from NPR West in Culver City California. Tomorrow it's Science Friday. Joe Palca will be in for Ira Flatow. We'll see you again on Monday. Have a good weekend. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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Tilting the Level Playing Field? It's Nothing New

A statue of a discus thrower at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. i i

The bronze statue of a discus thrower graced the Olympic Village at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The model's contemporaries sought a competitive edge with hallucinogenic mushrooms and animal hearts. Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
A statue of a discus thrower at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

The bronze statue of a discus thrower graced the Olympic Village at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The model's contemporaries sought a competitive edge with hallucinogenic mushrooms and animal hearts.

Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images
NBA official Tim Donaghy and Kobe Bryant i i

Cheating in sports is not confined to athletes. NBA ref Tim Donaghy (left), shown here working a playoff game in 2006, admitted cooperating with gamblers. Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
NBA official Tim Donaghy and Kobe Bryant

Cheating in sports is not confined to athletes. NBA ref Tim Donaghy (left), shown here working a playoff game in 2006, admitted cooperating with gamblers.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell's report on the "serious drug culture, from top to bottom," within Major League Baseball is just the latest evidence that sports are not always conducted on a level playing field.

The scandals may be disturbing, but they're really nothing new. Seeking an edge in sports is as old as the noble Olympiads. During the Greek games, athletes caught cheating paid fines. The money was used to erect statues of Zeus. These statues were placed along the passageway that led to the stadium, with the name of the cheater inscribed on their bases — a public humiliation, the precursor to bad press.

Some of the ancient Greek athletes were known to ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms — as well as animals' hearts and testicles — all to enhance performance, according to Charles Yesalis, professor of health and human development at Penn State, quoted in The Washington Post.

World's First Dopers

In other words, the ancient Greeks, fathers of democracy and Western culture, were also the world's first dopers. The Romans weren't much better. Gladiators used stimulants in the famed Circus Maximus (circa 600 B.C.) to overcome fatigue and injury.

In modern times, runners doped themselves with strychnine as early 1904.

Today's technology is, of course, more sophisticated. But the underlying problem remains the same: some athletes are willing to cheat to win, by doping or other means.

And not just athletes, by the way: NBA referee Tim Donaghy recently admitted that he cooperated with gamblers. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick was penalized by the NFL for illegally videotaping coaching activities on the opposite sideline.

Some analysts say the reason for a seeming spurt in cheating is simple: the stakes are higher. Salaries and prize money are at record levels so, simply put, it pays to cheat. "It's more rational to take risks if the pay-off is very large," says David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture. "And as cheating spreads in a given sport, the non-cheaters feel they are paying a price for remaining honest."

Worse Than Dirty Politics

Judging from the media coverage, dirty athletes seem to evoke more public outrage than dirty politicians. That's because cheating in sports is more clear-cut than cheating in politics, says sportswriter Frank Deford, a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition. "We expect politicians to be dirty, and we realize that rap singers aren't moral paragons, but we want our sports to be clean. What all of these scandals have shown is that sports is no different from anything else."

Deford has a theory: Athletes taking part in individual sports, such as cycling or track, are more vulnerable to allegations of cheating than athletes taking part in team sports. In a team sport, the blame for any transgression can be spread around. Plus, "the team loyalty keeps you going year after year. That gives you a base, a foundation," he says. For individual athletes, there is no such redemption. They and they alone are to blame.

Sports scandals go to the heart of the American split personality, says Callahan. On the one hand, we value egalitarianism and fair play; on the other hand, we admire those who succeed, even if sharp elbows are employed in the climb to the top. "There is something very sacred about sports to America, a country infatuated with egalitarian ideals, at least on paper, so when sports are tarnished by cheating we are disillusioned."

The Games Go On

Perhaps, but none of the cheating scandals has made a dent in attendance figures, at least not in this country. NFL attendance is on the rise. A record number of fans are paying to watch big-league baseball, steroids notwithstanding. (NBA attendance has been flat; the Donaghy scandal broke during the off-season so it's too soon to measure its impact.)

But some think American sports fans will not tolerate this trend indefinitely.

"Most people still have great faith in the integrity of the game. If that is lost, it will eventually affect attendance," says Robert Simon, author of a book on cheating and sports. That has already happened in Europe, where professional cycling has suffered a major setback from the recent doping scandals at the Tour de France.

On the other end of the spectrum is golf: one sport that remains untainted by even a whiff of scandal. Golf retains a code of honor that seems almost quaint in this day of steroids and surreptitious videotaping. Golfers will call a penalty on themselves — if, for instance, they accidentally jostle their ball on the green — even if no one else witnessed the infraction.

Smith says we shouldn't make too much of the recent spike in cheating scandals. "We forget the thousands and thousands of games are played where people do the right thing," he says.

Deford agrees. "To suggest that we have descended to the depths of Hades all of a sudden, I wouldn't buy into that. These cheating scandals, though, do show that athletes are susceptible to the same kind of venality as the rest of us."

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