The likes of Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones may grab the headlines for their underhand use of performance-enhancing drugs, but there is another side to the steroid story – and its deadly implications are little understood.
Steroid abuse by image-conscious teenage boys for body-building is now so common that rules were changed last year to allow under-18s to receive needle exchange services to prevent the spread of hepatitis B and HIV.
But infection is only the half of it. Use of anabolic steroids can lead to other life-threatening conditions such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, strokes and liver or kidney tumours.
When I started writing Over The Line seven years ago, I did not expect my faltering efforts to be punctuated so often by stories of steroid-related deaths. About 18 months ago, I was spurred to finish the book when a relative of a former colleague told me of the death of his body-builder son from a heart attack.
Over The Line is, of course, a work of fiction and needs to be an enjoyable read, but my hope is it will help shed some light on both aspects of steroid abuse: the elite and the everyday.
The central character, Megan Tomos, a 21-year-old athlete who has already made millions from sponsorship and prize money, looks set to win a Gold medal in the sprint hurdles at the Rio Olympics next year.
But her celebrity status means nothing to a meticulous police inspector and a bereaved mother who are determined to establish the truth about the death – two years earlier – of steroid addict Matt Davies, who went to school in Newport with Megan.
Suspicion engulfs the Olympic poster girl when it emerges she is still in touch with Will Driscoll, an ex-boyfriend who was present when Matt died and who was banned from playing rugby for taking steroids.
The police reopen their investigation into Matt’s death and, amid growing media pressure, Megan disappears. The police suspect she has been less than truthful – and even her coach, Liam McCarthy, begins to have doubts.
The story is narrated by Liam, who has devoted his life to athletics and agonises over what to believe as he discovers more and more about Megan’s connections with the dark world of steroid abuse.
If Over The Line achieves nothing else, I would like it to stimulate debate about what doctors’ now call ‘reverse anorexia’.
The use of gyms for weight training by teenage boys is often for good reasons: they want to be healthy or need to be stronger for sports they take part in. But, generally, qualified coaches advise against anyone who is not fully grown using weights because of its impact on their under-developed bones.
Why then are so many teenage boys getting into body building when it is not encouraged by most sports professionals? And why do some of them use anabolic steroids to artificially aid muscle development, despite the severe health risks?
The paradox is that boys who display a high degree of confidence – possibly even arrogance – are often, in fact, suffering from low self-esteem.
In Over The Line, Matt is infatuated with Megan, but he isn’t sporty and sees her slipping away from him as she achieves ever greater success as an athlete. To compete for Megan’s affection with Will, a talented rugby player, he starts body-building and becomes addicted to anabolic steroids.
The term ‘reverse anorexia’ has been around in academic circles for 20 years or so, but it is not widely used or understood. Health professionals define it as a syndrome where people believe “that they (appear) small and weak even though they (are) actually large and muscular.” (Pope, Katz and Hudson, 1993)
As one academic put it: “To compensate for his insecurities, the bodybuilder escalates his weightlifting regime so he can appear more intimidating in a sort of vicious cycle. Likewise, the female with anorexia nervosa starves herself to become life-threateningly thin, but can never be thin enough for herself.” (Bianca Hitt, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee)
Whatever motivates insecure teenage boys to start body-building – girl troubles, bullying, problems at home, pressure to look like Action Man – the temptation to speed up the process of developing muscle bulk by taking anabolic steroids is immense.
Steroids are readily available in many gyms and online, yet the consequences of using them are underestimated. Increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and cancer are the deadly dangers.
But, in men, the physical side-effects also include reduced sperm count, infertility, shrunken testicles, baldness, breast development and a combination of splayed teeth and overgrowth of the forehead (giving an ‘incredible hulk’ appearance).
In women, they can cause facial hair growth, loss of breasts, swelling of the clitoris, a deepened voice, an increased sex drive, problems with periods and hair loss.
Misusing anabolic steroids can, in either sex, cause severe acne, mood swings, hallucinations and delusions, and aggressive behaviour known as ‘roid rage.
No one knows the full extent of steroid abuse in Britain. But we do know the quantity of anabolic steroids seized by police and border forces in England and Wales increased by 70%, from 1.5 million doses in 2012/13 to 2.5 million doses in 2013/14.
Meanwhile, drug charity Crime Reduction Initiatives says it has seen a rise of 645 per cent in steroid users visiting its 21 needle exchanges across the UK, up from just 290 in 2010 to 2,161 in 2013.
It might be an exaggeration to say steroid abuse is reaching epidemic proportions – but we are not far from that. Steroids are being manufactured and supplied on an industrial scale. Huge profits are being made by people – criminals – exploiting the low self-esteem of young teenagers. It’s time to do something about it.
This article first appeared in the Western Mail magazine on Saturday 7th February.
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