GUEST POST: Looking at Steroids through History


Guest Post by:  Stephen Bitsoli

Today, anabolic steroids – more properly anabolic-androgenic steroids – are synonymous with weightlifters, bodybuilders, football players and other athletes who use them to get an advantage – some would say an unfair advantage, or even cheat – over their fellows. (Scientific estimates of how many athletes use anabolic steroids is less than 6 percent, but abuse may be higher, based on anecdotal evidence.)

That’s not why they were originally developed

Anabolic steroids, synthetic variations of testosterone, the male sex hormone, “were developed in the late 1930s primarily to treat hypogonadism, a condition in which the testes do not produce sufficient testosterone,” which can cause delayed puberty and impotence, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A more recent application is to counter the “wasting of the body caused by HIV infection or other diseases.”

But there’s nothing so innocent that it can’t be abused. Once research revealed that steroids also promoted skeletal muscle growth, some athletes began using them for that purpose alone.

When steroids were banned, athletes used them clandestinely. When blood tests were developed to detect their use, they took new steroids and supplements for which tests didn’t exist.

And as more and more athletes used them, the pressure increased on all athletes to use them also just to keep up, to remain competitive, even as the signs of steroid abuse became more obvious.

Hiv, Aids, Virus, Disease, Health, Sickness, Care, Day

Same as it ever was.

While sport can be a good physical exercise, and there are benefits to healthy, friendly competition, some have always tried to improve their odds, sometimes by just plain bizarre means.

Whether these methods actually improved performance is another matter.

For example, before a competition the Greeks were fond of eating huge amounts of meat from beasts common and exotic, and from traditional cuts to the hearts and raw testicles of sheep and other animals.

Well, testicles would be rich in testosterone, and so-called lamb fries are considered a delicacy in some places, but how badly you must want to win to eat ovine testicles uncooked?

Even ancient Greek athletes undertook “doping” by using “food” for improved performance.

Both the Greeks and the Romans also took stimulants to improve performance, but since amphetamines weren’t available they used strychnine. Isn’t strychnine poison? Yes, and that’s why it’s not commonly used today, but it can reduce pain and make it easier to move when tired. It helped Thomas Hicks win a gold medal in the 1904 Summer Olympics marathon. Arsenic can have a similar effect.

Ancient athletes, Greek and Roman. also used hallucinogenic mushrooms. Norse Berserkers (fierce, almost unstoppable warriors, in myth and maybe history) drank a brew that may have included hallucinogenic mushrooms, too.

Other substances believed to assist with athletic prowess included dried figs, poppy and sesame seeds, alcohol, various herbs and powdered ass hooves. And tobacco, cocaine, hashish and opium have been found in Egyptian mummies, though not necessarily in athletes only.

Why dope?

Then as now, for fame, prestige and money.

Plus, sometimes losing wasn’t just a test of how much of a good sport you were. It could cost you your life, such as in the Roman gladiatorial games or – at times, at least – the Mesoamerican ball game (something like soccer and basketball) among several Latin American Indian civilizations.

When your life is on the line, you'll do whatever it takes to win competition.
When your life is on the line, you’ll do whatever it takes to win competition.


When your life is on the line, you might try anything that could help, even if only as a placebo.

In some ways such doping was harder to spot than blood tests or some of the modern signs of steroid abuse, but it was still frowned upon if you were caught. Ancient Greek athletes could be banned from the games for life, their names inscribed in stone or bronze as cheaters for all the (Greek) world to see.

Well, testicles would be rich in testosterone, and so-called lamb fries are considered a delicacy in some places, but how badly you must want to win to eat ovine testicles uncooked?

Between then and the birth of anabolic steroids, athletes tried other drugs and substances, including laudanum (an opium derivative and analgesic), baking soda, ether (sugar cubes were soaked in it, along with nitroglycerine and/or cocaine), more experimentation with stimulants (in 1886 a Welsh cyclist died after taking trimethyl) and animal testicular fluid (in 1889 a French physicist injected himself with dog and/or guinea pig sperm).

Actual anabolic steroids came much later, in the 20th century, after scientists synthesized testosterone.

One of those scientists, one of the fathers of the anabolic steroid, was Adolf Butenandt, a German scientist. He was a member of the Nazi Party, but then you pretty much had to belong to the party. This has led to claims that the Nazis invented steroids.

Incidences like that of Jesse Owens may have put pressure on Hitler to try and create his own PEDs for athletes
Incidences like that of Jesse Owens may have put pressure on Hitler to try and create his own PEDs for athletes

There is some evidence that the Nazis experimented with steroids on concentration camp prisoners during World War II, and that Adolph Hitler himself used experimental steroids – testosterone and a concoction including young bull semen and prostate glands – and exhibited signs of steroid abuse, such as paranoia, violent behavior (’roid rage) and suicidal tendencies.

The Nazis may have wanted anabolic asteroids to make stronger soldiers, but that their sense of Aryan superiority was shaken by Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics may also have played a part.

The Nazis had little to do with steroid development other than in driving Jewish scientists out of Germany, where they continued their work. The Nazi connection is mostly used to demonize steroids.

Not that they’re trouble-free. They have dangerous side-effects. In addition to mood swings and other psychological changes, signs of steroid abuse may include severe acne, high blood pressure, an enlarged heart, liver and kidney problems and a stroke.

Defenders argue that the war on sports doping, like the wider war on drugs or Prohibition, has been a waste of time, effort and resources. Whistle-blowers catch more people than blood or urine samples. Better regulation makes more sense.

Maybe. Not everybody misusing steroids is a professional athlete. A Drug Enforcement Agency bust of one illegal steroid lab revealed production far in excess of what pros alone could use. Non-pros are misusing steroids, too, and are much less likely to have skilled pharmaceutical or medical supervision.

As it stands, you don’t always know what you’re getting. Regulation and testing might offer amateurs more protection. Once released, it’s difficult to put the genie back in the bottle.

Writer Bio:

Stephen Bitsoli writes articles about addiction and related topics. A journalist for more than 20 years, and a lifelong avid reader, Stephen loves learning and sharing what he’s learned.