The Magic Potion Or is it? Though little is known about its long-term effects, the muscle-building supplement creatine is the rage among athletes from superstars to hot-to-bulk-up teens

April 19, 1998

Chad Oliva, a 17-year-old Florida schoolboy baseball player, is
striding purposefully along the glossy floor of the Palm Beach
Gardens Mall. He passes an attractive girl, a classmate at Palm
Beach Gardens High.

"Hey, Chad," the girl says, her voice oozing affection.

"Whassup," Chad responds brusquely, making no eye contact, the
bill of his baseball cap pointing the way to his destination,
the General Nutrition Center near the entrance to Sears. In his
dreams--though not the ones in which he is catching for the New
York Mets--Chad has a gigantic cart and a free shopping spree at
GNC.

Upon entering the chain store, Chad heads immediately to the
back left corner, where shelf after shelf is crammed with
competing canisters filled with creatine, the nutritional
supplement of the day, the month, the year. He squats to the
floor, where the monster tubs are. "This is the good stuff," he
says, picking up a four-pound container of creatine powder that
costs $56.99 and is distributed by a company called Experimental
and Applied Sciences (EAS).

Chad, who stands 5'11" and weighs 190 pounds, will consume the
powder over four months by dissolving one scoop, or 43 grams,
twice a day into a glass of water or juice or Gatorade. The tub
of creatine will provide him with the protein equivalent of 414
one-pound steaks.

Just being in GNC gives Chad--who has big-time power (seven
homers in 56 at bats this season, through Sunday), a nice arm, a
3.9 academic average and an athletic scholarship to
Jacksonville--a rush. "Everything they have here, the vitamins
and all, they're good, natural products," he says. "You just
have to know how to use them."

Chad, who also takes vitamins, other supplements and the herb
echinacea, slides over to a rack filled with muscle and fitness
magazines and thumbs through the April issue of Muscle Media,
which is published by an EAS subsidiary. On the cover is a
teaser about the Denver Broncos: how they muscled their way to
the top! (According to a letter to the magazine from the
Broncos' All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe, 75% of the Super Bowl
champions use EAS products, mostly creatine.) The table of
contents refers to a story on page 52: The Creatine Controversy:
Is It a Safe, Legal Alternative to Steroids? (According to the
story, the resounding answer is--what a shocker!--yes.) Chad
stops flipping through the pages when he reaches a picture of a
shirtless Brady Anderson, the Baltimore Orioles centerfielder,
EAS spokesman and ardent creatine user. "Look at him," Chad
says, admiringly. "He's cut, but he's not a monster. He looks
like a ballplayer." Anderson is the very thing Chad wants to be
when he grows up: a major leaguer, an All-Star.

When Anderson first tried creatine in 1991, he was probably the
only guy in the majors using it. Although precise numbers aren't
known, anecdotal evidence suggests at least one quarter of all
major leaguers now use the substance. That number is at least as
high in professional hockey and basketball, and perhaps 50% of
NFL players take creatine. Among Olympic sprinters, cyclists and
weightlifters, those who don't use creatine are harder to find
than those who do. Bodybuilders live on the stuff. Boxers, too.
Innumerable ordinary weekend athletes use it. It's everywhere.
According to Grant Ferrier of the Nutrition Business Journal, in
1996 U.S. sales of creatine products (the stuff is sold as a
drink and in bars and tablets, as well as in powder form) were
$50 million. Last year sales rose to $100 million, and Ferrier
expects sales to surpass $200 million in 1998.

Michael Barnes, the strength coach of the San Francisco 49ers,
estimates that three quarters of the Niners use creatine. For
the football team at Nebraska, the estimate is 80%. The Los
Angeles Lakers have tubs of creatine powder sitting in their
locker room.

Then there's the opposite camp. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers'
strength coach, Mark Asanovich, won't allow creatine in the
Bucs' locker room. Trainers for the Chicago Cubs and the San
Diego Padres discourage players from using it. Those opposed say
the same thing: Not enough is known about creatine.

Undaunted by this cautious thinking, many college coaches and
trainers are encouraging their players to get on a creatine
program. A jargon once reserved for carbohydrates and steroids
is being used in connection with creatine. Creatine loading is
becoming common among collegiate athletes. At schoolboy baseball
practices across the U.S. this month you can hear teenagers
talking about "creatine cycling," the schedule of creatine use
they adhere to. Recently, one gangly teenager at Chad Oliva's
high school went sprinting across a diamond, declaring
exuberantly, "I'm on creatine!" One distributor of a supplement
containing creatine recently began a promotion tailored to
women, who are invited to enter the "1998 Ms. MET-Rx Contest."

A creatine craze is spreading for a simple reason: The stuff
works. It helps build muscles and cuts recovery time after a
workout. There's a trifecta waiting out there for the creatine
user--get bigger, faster and stronger. What a creatine program
is or should be, no one can say. One manufacturer suggests a
typical regimen: a one-week loading phase of 20 grams a day
followed by a maintenance program, while in training, of five
grams a day, taken after working out. The reality is that many
athletes take the view that if a little is good, a lot must be
better, so they use far more than that. Is that safe? Only time
will tell.

In 1832 a French scientist identified in meat a naturally
occurring organic compound later found to be manufactured by the
liver, kidneys and pancreas using three amino acids. The
scientist named the compound creatine after the Greek word for
flesh. Most people produce a gram or two of creatine a day. By
1926 a British medical journal was citing creatine in its
natural form as an agent for weight gain. The first synthetic
creatine, a duplicate of the substance found in the body, was
made in the late '50s by Pfanstiehl, a pharmaceutical company in
Waukegan, Ill. (Synthetic creatine requires only the mixing
under heat of water and the salts cyanamide and sarcosine.)
Athletes from Soviet-bloc countries, according to anecdotal
evidence, were using creatine in the late '60s. In '81
creatine's potential medical benefits were cited in an article
in the New England Journal of Medicine. Seven years later, two
doctors in Sweden, Paul Greenhaff and Eric Hultman, gauged the
performance-enhancing effects of creatine in healthy athletes;
their research was published in the journal Clinical Science in
1992.

The insiders' buzz about creatine intensified during the 1992
Summer Olympics, when several medal wins were attributed, at
least partially, to creatine, particularly those by British
sprinters Linford Christie and Colin Jackson. At the Atlanta
Games, athletes, trainers and coaches were talking about how the
medal-winning physiques of Michael Johnson and Donovan Bailey
were shaped by creatine. Since then, creatine use has become
common in other sports, and what was once a secret is now being
broadcast in commercials, printed ads, interviews and personal
appearances by endorsers such as Anderson, Troy Aikman and John
Elway.

So these days anybody who has been listening knows that
creatine, taken in conjunction with a rigorous conditioning
regimen, can increase strength by at least 5%. Doctors,
nutritionists and pharmacologists agree on that. What nobody
knows is whether intensive creatine use is dangerous. Nobody
knows whether young bodies, still growing, can be harmed by
profuse ingestion of creatine. Nobody knows whether creatine,
when used with other performance-enhancing substances, can be
harmful. The official position of the Food and Drug
Administration on creatine is--there is no official position, at
least not yet, because as a dietary supplement it's considered
neither a food nor a drug. In the absence of governmental
regulation, two camps are forming: Camp Cautious and Camp
Try-It-You'll-Like-It.

"What we don't know about creatine should scare us more than
what we do know about creatine," says Mark S. Juhn, a sports
medicine physician at the University of Washington. "There are
no studies that prove its innocence. If you're perfectly healthy
to begin with, why take any chances? You have to ask yourself,
Is it worth it?"

There are scores of studies that seem to show that creatine
increases strength and poses only minor short-term health risks.
Some users have complained of cramping, dehydration, diarrhea
and dizziness. (Experts say those side effects can be diffused
by drinking large quantities of water. Anderson drinks more than
a gallon a day.) Some users have suffered from muscle pulls and
fatigue that may have resulted from an increased desire to work
out. But there isn't one study that addresses how long-term
creatine use affects the heart, kidneys or liver and how it
might affect fertility. (On the other hand excessive steroid use
has a proven link with kidney and liver malfunction.)

Perhaps the most significant fear, acknowledged even by
creatine's proponents, is that impure creatine is on store
shelves. "There's real junk coming in from China," says Steven
Plisk, the director of sports conditioning at Yale. He has heard
of manufacturers mixing baking soda with creatine. Other
impurities, like rat hairs, have been found. "You should really
have a laboratory certificate of analysis, with a specific lot
or batch number on whatever you're buying," he says.

That, for Plisk, is where the worrying stops. "I'm trying as
hard as anybody to find something wrong with creatine, and I
can't," he says.

The most significant result of creatine use--a negative effect
for some and a positive for others--is gaining weight. Chad says
he put on 16 pounds in his first four weeks of using creatine
(though he admits some of it might not have been muscle). He
wanted to bulk up. But many athletes are trying to lose or
maintain weight. When three collegiate wrestlers trying to make
weight died in a 33-day period late last year, there was
widespread speculation that their use of creatine contributed to
their deaths while they were trying to shed pounds. The FDA
investigated the fatalities and determined that creatine did not
play a role in the deaths. But it's obvious that boxers or
wrestlers or anybody else trying to control weight will find the
task more difficult while taking creatine.

Young athletes, of course, are often trying to gain weight,
which is why manufacturers are so obviously marketing creatine
to teenagers. (Hey, kids, have you tried the new chocolate
creatine milk shake yet?) "It could be beneficial for kids, but
I don't really know," says Sharpe, who's a spokesman for EAS.
"You're talking about adults, highly skilled athletes who are
taking this. Professional football players. Notice how I use the
word professional--not high school."

Anderson believes he's walking proof of creatine's safety. "If
you study it, then you realize there's no mystery in it," he says.

What would Anderson advise kids who want to use it?

He starts a sentence and stops. Starts again and stops. It's not
a magic potion...use it properly...read up on it...get advice
from an adult. "What would I tell a kid?" he says finally. "I
don't know."

Chad is a kid, although he doesn't look like one. He thinks he
knows. "Some of the other guys look at me like, There's Chad,
he's on creatine," he says. "They think that all you do is take
creatine and you get bigger and stronger and faster. They don't
know the work I'm doing"--which includes weightlifting and
sprints. "They're not willing to make the commitment. The
question is, Are you willing to do what you have to do to make
it to the next level? I am. The scouts I've talked to, the
college coaches, they all ask, 'Are you doing creatine?' I say,
'Yeah, I am.' They say, 'Good, good.'"

Chad bobs his chin, impressed with his own reasoning. He's a big
kid getting bigger. What he knows more than anything is that he
wants to get to The Show. Creatine, he figures, can only help.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY MATT MAHURIN [Photomontage of containers and pills of creatine] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER POWDER KEGS Aikman (left) and Anderson enthusiastically credit creatine supplements for improving their performance. [Troy Aikman in game] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID SEELIG/ALLSPORT [See caption above--Brady Anderson batting] COLOR PHOTO: NICK CARDILLICCHIO THE NATURAL? Sucking down two scoops of creatine a day helps power the 190-pound Oliva's major league dreams. [Chad Oliva]

The Los Angeles Lakers have tubs of creatine sitting in their
locker room.

"Are you willing to do what you have to do to make it to the
next level? I am."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)