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An exercise-related career can often sound irresistible to a young man or woman eager to cash in on a dedication to physical fitness and healthy living. Here, though, is one offer that is more sad than exciting – and enough to make every true sports enthusiast wince.
It appeared in The Guardian last week; a job advertisement placed by the Harrow and Hillingdon Healthcare NHS Trust. It was for a “Steroid Worker”. Harrow Community Drug and Alcohol Service is seeking a skilled worker “to provide information and advice to people using, or contemplating using, steroids. Strategies will include the provision of sterile needles/syringes to injecting steroid users and work with local gyms”.
Applicants, who should be qualified in counselling, psychology or social work, are advised that “experience of bodybuilding would be an advantage”.
“If you can’t beat ’em, at least give ’em clean needles,” seems to be the philosophy here; and the message that is sent out to thousands of young sportsmen is that steroid use is an everyday ingredient of sporting life.
It is a message of despair, but, in the world of sport and drugs, there is much despair. There is despair at the grassroots level of the gymnasium, and there is despair at the very pinnacle of sport.
At the weekend, it was reported that Dean Capobianco, an Australia sprinter, who is facing a four-year ban after a positive test for anabolic steroids, is fighting the case with an ingenious defense. He is claiming that the eating of meat from cows that may have been beefed up using anabolic agents can cause an otherwise innocent athlete to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. If the defense works, we shall no doubt hear of a lot more sportsmen loading up on beef and bravely ignoring the dangers of CJD.
Capobianco said that his evidence has been served on the International Amateur Athletic Federation. “I can imagine they are in a panic about the ramifications for their whole drugs-testing program,” he said.
“What drugs-testing program?” some might ask. Yesterday Prince Alexandre de Merode, the medical chief of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), announced that 16 athletes returned suspicious urine samples at the Olympic Games in Atlanta this year, although only two were banned. “Juridical grounds” and “technical doubts” saved the others.
The previous time the Olympics were in the United States, in Los Angeles in 1984, documents relating to nine positive drug tests at the Games were, according to IOC officials, inadvertently shredded by a hotel cleaner.
There is, sadly, no lack of evidence of the widespread abuse of drugs in sport at all levels. In the aftermath of Ben Johnson’s disqualification after winning the 100 meters at the 1988 Games, inquiries were launched in Canada and Australia and concluded that drug abuse was common in top-class sport and that anabolic steroid use has spread into recreational sport and exercise. Users can now be found in large numbers among semi-elite sportsmen and women, and health and fitness enthusiasts – none of whom are subjected to testing.
The line between drugs in sport and drugs in society is becoming increasingly blurred, and children as young as 12 are getting hold of steroids in an attempt to build bodies like their muscle-bound role models.
A survey last year estimated that 100,000 Britons under the age of 16 are using anabolic steroids. Schemes like the one advertised are now not uncommon, and follow evidence that an increasing number of syringe exchange schemes set up for drug users have noticed that anabolic steroid users are using their services. Such centers have witnessed the sight of apparently super-fit young sportsmen lining up alongside malnourished drug addicts to collect their handout of clean needles. A study in 1991 found that 5 percent of all clients at 21 syringe exchanges in England and Wales were steroid users.
Dr. Huw Perry, a bodybuilder who has studied steroid abuse for the West Glamorgan Health Authority, has said that 40 percent of addicts at South Wales needle exchanges are now steroid users.
None of this could happen without a regular supply of the drugs and the law gives the pushers far too easy a ride. The penalty for supplying steroids has been increased this year to a maximum of five years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine – but possession is still not an offence.
You can, however, turn up at the gym with a sports bag stuffed full of them, but, unless it can be proved that you are selling them, the law cannot touch you – madness!
Anyone who thinks that the use of such drugs is simply a short cut to looking strong and performing like a champion should be warned – steroids can kill. Birgid Dressel, a West German heptathlete who used drugs including steroids, was fourth at the European championships in 1986. She was dead before the year was out with a collapsed immune system. Lyle Alzado, an American footballer, died in 1992 from brain cancer that he said was brought on by years of steroid abuse. Last year James Kevill, a London bodybuilder, became so crazed after taking a huge dose of anabolic steroids that he ran head-first into a wall and died.
Meanwhile the kids from the gyms are still queueing up for their sterile needles and in Harrow they are still looking for a “Steroid Worker.” It sounds like hard work to me.