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Outside Magazine November 2003
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Drug Test
Everybody knows that many athletes cheat by using performance-enhancing drugs like steroids, testosterone, and EPO. But what is it like to take these banned substances? Do they really help you win? To find out, we sent an amateur cyclist into the back rooms of sports medicine, where he just said yes to the most controversial chemicals in sports. See Editor's Note/Correction

By Stuart Stevens

outdoor adventure image
Booster shots: Stevens spent eight months experimenting with banned sports drugs (Gregg Segal)

"OK," the doctor said when we settled into his examination room. "What do you want to be?"

I looked confused, so he explained.

"You want to be bigger? Leaner? Faster longer or faster shorter? More overall endurance? You want to see better?"

"See better?"

"Human growth hormone does that for some people. It improves the muscles in the eyes." He tried again: "So, what do you want?"

This was quite a concept. Freud wrote that anatomy is destiny, and here was a doctor giving me a chance, in my late forties, to alter my body in the most fundamental way. It was strange, but also strangely alluring.

It had taken me a while to arrive at this moment. I was sitting in the San Fernando Valley offices of a physician whose identity I've agreed to conceal—let's just call
In His Own Words
Listen to Stuart Stevens' interview on NPR's "All Things Considered."
him Dr. Jones. For reasons I'll explain shortly, my goal was to experience firsthand some of the banned performance-enhancing drugs that are often abused in the endurance sports I participate in, like cycling and cross-country skiing. The menu I had in mind included human growth hormone (HGH), testosterone, and some variety of anabolic steroid, all of which are used to increase strength and shorten an athlete's recovery time by repairing muscle cells faster.

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Also high on my list was that powerful stuff called erythropoietin, better known as EPO, a hormone that boosts oxygen levels in the blood by prompting the bone marrow to produce more red blood cells. EPO is known to have amazing endurance-boosting effects; not surprisingly, it's been a scourge for years in professional biking and skiing. In 1998, to cite one famous example, the Tour de France nearly came to a halt when a leading team, Festina, was caught using EPO, HGH, steroids, and testosterone. The entire squad was disqualified, and dozens of riders either staged protests or withdrew in reaction to the drug tests and police raids that followed.

Outdoor Adventure Image Adventure Tourism Adventure Travel Photography
(Gregg Segal)

All of these are prescription drugs, and they all have legitimate medical applications. (HGH, for instance, is used to treat Prader-Willi syndrome, a rare disease that stunts the growth of children.) But you and I are not supposed to have them without a doctor's supervision, and they're absolutely forbidden in most higher realms of sports. There are exceptions—Major League Baseball doesn't drug-test at all—but if you were caught using these substances in, say, the Olympics, the Tour, the NFL, or any NCAA event, you would face disqualification and suspensions, though the penalties and the testing processes vary wildly. This is one of the key problems that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), an independent drug-policy group headquartered in Montreal, is attempting to address—with the goal of standardizing everything from a list of banned drugs to the testing-and-appeals process. WADA's hope is that these rules and procedures will be adopted by sports federations around the globe.

When I first began my quest, I'd assumed it would be easy to slide into the underground where performance drugs are bought and sold. But when I asked around, nobody, not even friends who were top amateur and professional athletes, knew where cheaters actually went to score. Their comments were always vague: "Well, they get it, believe me," they'd say, or "How about the Internet?"

So at first I just hit the streets. I live in Santa Monica, California, and I started going to Gold's Gym in nearby Venice, the place that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilding greats. At Gold's you can easily meet gym rats who know where to find muscle-enhancing goodies, and after a few weeks of hanging out, I found myself sitting in a beat-up sports car with one of my new lifting buddies, a beefy guy in his early thirties who showed off his stash with unveiled excitement.

"Look, here's a good thing to start with," he said.

He handed me a bottle of pills. It was Stanozolol, an anabolic steroid that lifters use to add muscle mass. This is one of the drugs that sprinter Ben Johnson was caught using at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, where he was subsequently stripped of his 100-meter gold medal.

"Where do you get this?" I said.

"A vet I know," he answered casually. It took me a second to realize he meant veterinarian, not military veteran. "Vets and Mexican farmacias, that's where you get the best stuff." I looked at the label on the bottle—these were literally animal pills. They're used to bulk up livestock, and they're banned from greyhound racing, where they're given to dogs to make them stronger.

"Start with this," he went on, spilling out several doses. "Good base, can't go wrong." I must have looked shocked, because he gave me a friendly punch in the arm and said, "You want to get big, don't you?"

That night at home I sat staring at the pills. Veterinarians? Mexican pharmacies? I shuddered and threw them out. I knew the only way I could play this game was under a doctor's supervision.



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STUART STEVENS is the author of five books and co-producer of the new HBO series K Street.

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