Sports in general and body building in particular have been altered to one degree or another by drugs. In football, for example, drugs have been used to stimulate athletes or to enable them to "play hurt." In body building, drugs have been widely credited with producing the look that has been in vogue for the past decade or so. A body builder's physique is the equipment he wins with, and since the late '60s and early '70s this look has been changing.
Builders are no longer winning contests by displaying a body slightly more developed and more symmetrical than normal. To compete successfully in contests such as Mr. America and Mr. Olympia, one must now have an appearance of massiveness, density and definition. Builders strive to achieve the abnormal look they were criticized for more than two decades ago, when they were expected to more nearly resemble a piece of well-proportioned Greek sculpture.
Competing 20 years ago might have meant having 17-inch biceps, 23-inch thighs and a 45-inch chest; today measurements would have to be 22, 28 and 57. Besides enormous muscle size, body building fans are now treated to the sight of veins running down the sides of a builder's arms, the distinct outlines of the deltoid muscles on his shoulders and almost the exact point of insertion for each head of the biceps. If one were to look still closer, he might see the actual strands of muscle fiber pumping through the paper-thin skin. Some argue that the new look is the result of improved diet and exercise, and thus "real"; others consider it artificial, to the extent that it has been achieved by a little blue five-milligram pill, Dianabol.
Body building is slowly becoming overrun by drugs such as this anabolic steroid, with builders popping Dianabol the way Reggie Jackson pops pumpkin seeds. Steroids are products of the body that are generally divided into two categories: the estrogens (primarily produced in females) and the androgens (produced mainly in males). Androgens are responsible for anabolic effects such as an increase in muscle mass and strength. Androgens also precipitate the development of male secondary sexual characteristics during puberty, such as increased body hair and enlargement of the sexual organs. But after puberty heavy dosages of steroids taken for prolonged periods have an opposite effect, leading to decreased function and atrophy of the testes.
Anabolic steroids are potentially dangerous drugs. While all of the side effects and the possible damage to other parts of the body have not yet been determined, it is certain that after several years' use first the liver becomes damaged and then the kidneys. One builder, a heavy user of drugs, was advised by his doctor that his liver had been damaged and he should discontinue taking steroids. It wasn't until his kidneys began to fail and blood appeared in his urine that he was convinced.
Dr. Lawrence Golding, co-chairman of the medical committee for the International Federation of Bodybuilders, says, "I was asked to do some research on the use of steroids among body builders by Ben Weider, president of the IFBB.
"In a formal approach to the problem I found all the athletes I interviewed would vehemently deny that they were taking any kind of drug whatever, but in an informal verbal survey we conducted we found almost all were taking them.
"We also found that many athletes were taking about 30 milligrams per day—the therapeutic dosage is five milligrams—and I discovered a great many taking as much as 100 milligrams."
Says former Mr. Universe and Mr. America Lou Ferrigno, "The problem is those who abuse the drug by taking high dosages. I wish body builders could go back to competing without it." Asked whether he took steroids, Ferrigno said, "I would rather not elaborate on that."
Golding says his research on anabolic steroids indicates that they have no effect at all on building lean muscle mass and explains the continued use of the drug as a result of peer-group pressure. However, endocrinologists feel that the most conclusive study of the effects of anabolic steroids such as Dianabol was conducted by the physiology department of the University of Leeds last year. Working with men undergoing weight training, the Leeds experimenters found, contrary to Golding, that "subjects taking 100 mg/day for six weeks gained weight, mean 3.3 kg [7.26 pounds], and the increase in weight was confined to the lean part of the body." Through the use of radiographic measurements they also concluded that "the muscles increased in size." Some scientists also believe that Dianabol decreases skin-fold thickness—viz., the paper-thin quality of the skin of body builders taking the drug—though here, again, others claim this to be an effect of a high-protein, low-fat diet. Moreover, many builders are convinced the drug gives more definition, or "cuts," to muscles and increases vascularity.
One professional body builder says, "Most of the time I can tell a drug physique; the body is more vascular and there is a puffy look to the tissues and the abdomen. I would say that 80% of the time I can tell who's on drugs and who isn't."
Tom Minichiello, who operates Manhattan's Mid-City gym, says, "Everyone knows about what I call the synthetic body builders, or the drug users. I have kids who come into my gym and immediately look for the Dianabol—they think it's something you can buy anyplace."
As one builder comments, "There aren't too many of us that wouldn't rely on the comforts and technology that our society provides for us. None of us wants to do without if we can have, whatever is available that will help make life easier. Besides, since no one is willing to talk about the problem of steroids honestly, it's never going to get out in the open so we can find a solution to it."
Builders sleep, eat and drink body building. Many train in certain gyms where 99% of the people working out are also into body building, and some even go so far as to segregate themselves in an entire environment of body builders, such as Venice Beach in Southern California. In such a closely knit and interdependent community, whatever is used by one builder quickly becomes common knowledge. For the competitor, anything he thinks will make his muscles the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger's (five times Mr. Olympia, six times Mr. America) is immediately placed at the top of the list of training aids. Yesterday it might have been a diet of raw eggs and liver, today it's protein supplements and Dianabol.
The men who have the current winning look are builders like Schwarzenegger, Serge Nubret (who claims he has never taken steroids) and Ferrigno. In the '50s and '60s champions were men like Tony Sansone, Steve Reeves, Jack Dillinger and Bill Pearl. Pearl and Sansone were thick but lacked the density and massiveness of Nubret and Ferrigno. If someone like Bill Pearl, who was Mr. U.S.A. in 1951 and came back in 1971 to win the Mr. Universe contest, were to enter the Mr. America contest this year, it is very unlikely he would place.
The difference in the looks of the two eras is inherent in the terms "separation" and "definition." Separation involves two different muscle groups, while definition concerns the same muscle group. In the upper arm, for instance, if the deltoid and the biceps are clearly seen as two distinctly different muscle groups, a builder is said to have good separation. If, when looking just at the biceps, one can almost see the point of insertion of the heads, it is great definition. Pearl, for example, had good separation and just the slightest definition. In comparison, the bodies of Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger have not only good separation but also great definition.
Possibly the easiest way to confirm the changes in the appearance of builders is to check the photographs in the muscle magazines of about 10 years ago, when drugs were not used to the extent they are today. Then take a look at the current issues of Muscle and Iron Man.
Another method is to observe the builders' physiques during and after competition. The action of the steroids is such that to get the best results a builder must be a heavy user while training for competition and then refrain from taking the drug after the contest. Because the steroids tend to inflate their muscles, according to one builder, "about six weeks after competition the muscles of someone using drugs will deflate almost as rapidly as a punctured balloon."
A metabolic internist who treats body builders in the New York City area says, "Those taking Dianabol realize that the drug only allows them three years of hard competition and then the good effects, in terms of increasing muscle mass, begin to fall off. The body reaches a point where it does not respond as it did initially. Body builders know when they decide to take the drug that if they don't make it in three years, they won't."
For those on top, or pretty close to it, the decision is simple: if they want to win, they have to use the drug. For younger builders just starting out, the decision becomes a bit more difficult: Should they use it, and, if so, when should they start? Most young builders realize that sooner or later they will be obliged to take steroids along with their handfuls of vitamins, and a great many are having trouble rationalizing the decision.
One builder, who, typically, refuses to be identified, is a 20-year-old student who has been training for a little more than a year. According to the owner of the gym where he trains, "The kid has the potential to become one of the top builders, if he wants."
Since he started building, he has put on about 35 pounds, increased his biceps from 15 to 17½ inches and his chest from 42 to 47 inches, and decreased his waist from 34 to 31 inches. "What I wanted when I first started body building," he says, "was a really dynamite-looking body, something that, when I walked down the street, people would turn and look at. I always wondered what it would be like to look like a Lou Ferrigno or an Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"What I found out when I got into it was that you have to have the drugs in order to look like a Schwarzenegger or a Ferrigno. The assumption that you can go to the gym, work out and, even after years, have some success, isn't true.
"I used the drug once for about four weeks, but I stopped. I could see myself getting a little bigger, but I learned from an older professional builder that I should start later in the game—when I can't get any more out of myself. 'Then bring the drug in,' he told me.
"Right now I don't know when I'm going to compete. I guess it depends on how good I can get with just good workouts, the right nutrition and diet. I know I could be good enough if I wanted to."
Perhaps by 1980, if not sooner, artificial methods of achieving success will have become as commonplace in a number of other sports as they have in body building—society and athletes may have decided that whatever is available to facilitate success should be used. But questions remain: Should athletes be permitted to gain an advantage over their competitors by artificial means, and, further, should they be permitted to take drugs that have demonstrably harmful side effects?
Without steroids, success in body building depends on the food the builder eats, the vitamin supplements he takes and the exercises he does. This is the way it used to be, and the way most builders would like it to be. But until the drug problem is faced openly by their entire community, body builders believe competition will continue as it has during the past decade—enhanced by steroids.