When a record-setting steroid bust was made in Edmonton in October, it was clear the demand for performance-enhancing drugs was far from just an Olympic or professional sports problem.
Those steroids were produced in a local lab and many likely destined for Alberta streets and gyms. More than 360,000 pills, 10,000 vials and over three dozen types of liquids and powders were seized. The value of the materials is pegged at $9.3 million.
Pursuit of glory at any level and in any sport will push athletes to contemplate what they are willing to risk to attain that success.
One local gym owner, who will remain anonymous in this story due to the negative impact steroids carry in his industry, pushed himself to that limit during his bodybuilding career, but he reached a limit where it was too much 15 years ago. He has been clean since and now does his best to steer athletes to an all-natural existence.
It wasn’t just the steroids, it was diuretics and insulin and other PEDs that caused him to stop competing.
“I love the sport to this day and I love promoting regional shows because I love giving first-time athletes that opportunity to experience something amazing about their own body,” says the gym owner. “But when I saw where the sport was going, I didn’t see the long-term benefit out-weighing the risks of the things I would need to do to be successful.”
Maintaining ethics in sports
The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport is an independent non-profit organization largely responsible for the monitoring and testing of Canadian athletes. Their client list includes the Canadian Olympic Committee, Canadian Interuniversity Sport, Canadian Colleges Athletic Association, Canadian Hockey League, the Canadian Football League and most Canadian federations that compete internationally.
Tens of thousands of athletes are under their watch. Regularly testing them all is impossible from a financial and a time stand point. So the centre has to figure out how best to monitor each federation.
In cases like the CIS, they target some sports — like football and hockey — more than others, and they lean heavily on random drug tests.
Once tests are administered — urine or blood depending on the federation — it is separated into A and B samples and taken to the World Anti-Doping Association lab in Montreal for analysis. If the A sample tests positive, they will contact the athlete, conduct a review and then test the B sample.
If that too proves to be positive, the athlete will face a suspension.
The current list of suspended athletes includes everyone from bodybuilders, to football players, cyclists, track athletes, wrestlers, lacrosse players, bobsledders, curlers, weightlifters, swimmers and boxers.
“You have the athlete who is trying to get to the next level, they are on the cusp, they are on the Olympic team, they’re trying to make the team and they’re looking for that little bit extra — they’re a higher risk group,” said CCES president and CEO Paul Melia. “The athlete who is recovering from injury and wants to speed up the recovery process tends to be another high-risk athlete. Athletes coming towards the end of their career can also be a high risk group because they want to extend their career. … There are a lot of factors.”
The list of substances that will deliver a positive test is lengthy: from many multiple types of steroids to EPO (a synthetic blood booster favoured by cyclists and endurance athletes), testosterone, diuretics, amphetamines and human growth hormone, among many others.
One of the biggest drug scandals in Canada in the last decade was the University of Waterloo football program, where an ingrained steroid ring was uncovered through the investigation of a break and enter. When the dust settled, nine players were suspended, wide receiver Nathan Zettler was in jail for possessing and trafficking and the university shut down the football team for the 2010 season.
Red Deer Rebels head coach Brent Sutter had an 18-year NHL career and has coached at the junior and NHL level since 1999. In all his time in hockey, he says he has never seen anyone use PEDs, although there were suspicions. The Rebels spend considerable time educating their players on the pitfalls of doping and on the types of things they can put in their body.
“Sometimes it’s accidental, sometimes it’s stuff you’d never guess, it’s an oversight that the normal person would take if they were sick or had a cold,” he said. “But unfortunately in sport, some of that stuff is banned and sometimes kids or players or parents don’t know that and that’s where the educational part is huge.”
Hunting Hills Lightning head football coach Kyle Sedgwick talks about the perils of PEDs with his athletes, particularly his Grade 12s who are eyeing university scholarships and junior football roster spots. But the program’s biggest concerns are nutrition, proper fitness and avoiding energy drinks and improper supplements. Sedgwick preaches a lot of patience.
“That time between when you graduate and turn 19, you put on 20 or 25 pounds,” he said. “If they go to a junior or CIS program right away, they are put on strict training programs and they will get bigger. A lot of guys train and get frustrated that they fail to get bigger or see the muscle, but what they fail to understand is that even though they aren’t getting bigger, they are getting stronger and they are getting more prepared for football.”
Al Parada, who owns Can-Pro Training Centre in Red Deer, works with the Rebels, Olympic athletes and 11 current NHLers, and many other athletes.
He stresses an all-natural form of training, especially when it comes to supplements.
“It’s a big thing … they all have to be ready to be tested, so they have to look for products that are NSF (Certified for Sport program) or informed choice approved,” said Parada. “(Younger athletes) really only need to be taking a good protein supplement, a multi-vitamin mineral and if they do want to get on something like a BioSteel product that is a pre-workout drink, they can do that.”
The other gym owner, who chose to remain anonymous, also now pushes all-natural substances for his athletes. He says one of the big issues with buying steroids from the black market is athletes don’t really know what they’re getting. Being unregulated, mislabelling occurs and there is no way to really know what they are taking.
“It’s why I don’t condone that use with amateurs,” he said. “Your body responds so differently to different things, that if you think you’re taking one thing but you are actually taking something else, it often works against an athlete for their end outcome.”
How steroids work and hurt
In addition, there is a misunderstanding about how steroids work. There is no Popeye effect, where they work as quickly as it takes the cartoon character to pop a can of spinach. But they do allow the athlete to train longer, train harder and recover faster by boosting hormones like testosterone.
But the health effects are many. Some are superficial like body acne, but most are more harmful and longer lasting:
l The steroid-boosted body breaks down quicker and becomes more susceptible to serious injury.
l Steroids introduce large amounts of testosterone into the body, causing the testes to shrink and promoting the growth of breast tissue in men.
l They can accentuate underlying problems, leading to ’roid rage, and heart issues and kidney failure, among other side effects.
It is a dangerous game, particularly if use not supervised correctly.
It gets even dicier when mixed with other performance-enhancing drugs.
What scared the anonymous gym owner in particular was the increasing reliance on diuretics and insulin as bodybuilders entered the final stage of their preparation for a competition. In that process, they dehydrate themselves to trim water weight and to accentuate their muscles. If they end up in the hospital for dehydration and the doctor gives them insulin when they are already on it for a non-diabetic reason, they are potentially looking at a coma.
“Steroids get the most attention, but I think they are the least dangerous,” he said.
Why some athletes cheat
The natural pressure of the sport that pushes many bodybuilders to PEDs, particularly at the pro level. For them it’s another tool in the tool box, and when your “uniform is your own skin,” everything has to be perfect.
“When it comes to bodybuilding, it’s a unique sport physiologically,” he said. “Whether it’s drugs or food or training or all of the above, you’re forcing your body to do something it doesn’t or wouldn’t otherwise do. You put it on display.”
There are bodybuilding federations that do not test and there are some that do test, requiring athletes to be clean for a certain length of time before they can even register. Some of these groups, like the World Natural Bodybuilding Federation, even use lie detector tests on every competing athlete.
But according to the gym owner, who still works with amateur bodybuilders and drug-free promotions, there is no fail safe. Because of the expense involved in testing — a single Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport test costs about $1,000 — not everyone is tested.
And when someone who has won fails a test, the blowback is often late and weak.
“Everything in our world is about instant gratification. You have an athlete who wins today who does happen to get tested and tests positive three or four months from now, he gets called up and told ‘You failed a test, you must send back your trophy’ — but nobody cares about that. The publications have been printed, the articles have been written, the exposure opportunities that existed were already awarded to the athlete who has now failed the test.”
Cracking down on cheaters
The CCES is stepping up its effort to curb cheating. Although the budget hasn’t grown, the group is changing monitoring methods, relying more on out-of-competition testing, when the athletes are actually training, and looking at athletes who are showing major gains.
More emphasis is being put on uncovering doping rings and improving relationships with border officials and police detachments.
The group is also developing biological passports for international athletes to help better monitor hormones and other levels, making it easier to stay on top of new designer steroids and other substances that come on the market and leave them in a chase position.
In January, penalties will increase. Currently, a first failed test results in a potential two-year ban with a second getting the athlete a lifetime suspension. With the changes, the first offence jumps to a four year ban — to cover a full Olympic quadrennial. In all cases, athletes have the right to bring their sanctions to an independent arbitrator for review.
“It’s important to keep in mind that the reasons the substances are on the banned list … to begin with is that they are harmful to the athlete’s health. But some athletes are willing to take that risk,” said the CCES’s Melia.
“If we don’t try to police that, if we don’t try to stop those athletes from doing it, then the other athletes they feel pressure to do it. They don’t want to risk their health, but the only way they can keep up is to do it. …
“Unfortunately, the decisions they make and the role models that they provide the young kids is not a good one … then kids think the only way they can make it to the pro sport ranks or make the Olympic team is to dope … and the harmful effects of these substances is even greater on a young developing child’s body.”