October 07, 2015
With the sports and movie seasons in full swing in October, I”m reminded of the many unanswered and often even unasked questions about one of the more pervasive changes of my lifetime: the spread of weight lifting and steroids. Put simply, athletes and actors don”t look all that much anymore like they did when I was a young fan in the 1960s and 1970s.
Recreational drugs such as LSD were massively publicized in the 1960s as playing a role in the culture’s swing to the left. But far less attention has been paid to the subsequent influence of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids.
These artificial variants on male sex hormones are especially interesting because, well, sex is interesting. Our society has been engaged for several decades in a giant science experiment involving the biochemical essence of masculinity, but few cultural intellectuals have paid systematic attention to what the results have been.
One problem is that we don”t have much awareness of a history of steroid use by celebrities. The more I”ve poked around the subject, the further back into the past the phenomenon appears to go.
For example, in a widely reviewed 1945 book, The Male Hormone, 54-year-old Paul de Kruif revealed that he had long been taking testosterone supplementation: “It’s chemical crutches. It’s borrowed manhood. It’s borrowed time,” he admitted. “But just the same it’s what makes bulls bulls.” The best-selling author went on to remark that
We know that both the St. Louis Cardinals and St. Louis Browns have won championships, super-charged by vitamins. It would be interesting to watch the productive power of an industry or a professional group that would try a systematic supercharge with testosterone…
We do have an origin story about the use of steroids in American sports: In 1954, John Ziegler, a doctor with the U.S. Olympic weight-lifting team, went out drinking at a world championship with his Soviet counterpart, who revealed that the Reds were experimenting with injecting their lifters/guinea pigs with testosterone. But plain testosterone, according to the Communist doctor, had too many masculinizing effects, such as aggression.
Ziegler then worked with the pharmaceutical firm CIBA on Dianabol, the first “anabolic steroid””one that tried to downplay general masculinization and focus on muscle building. Dianabol was introduced in 1958.
That Dr. Ziegler was more or less the steroid Svengali in the U.S. is reasonable, although one frustration of trying to piece together a simple history is that it keeps popping up in different places. For instance, photos of the changes in physique of West Coast bodybuilders in the 1950s suggest that, like de Kruif, they might have had access to some kind of muscle-building PEDs well before Dianabol was released.
And we now have a decent sense of steroid use in track and baseball from the key year of 1988 onward. On Sept. 24, 1988, Ben Johnson of Canada set the world record in the 100-meter dash at the Seoul Olympics, only to be stripped of his gold medal two days later for being so out of his gourd on steroids that even lackadaisical 1980s testing couldn”t pass him. Early the next month, Boston Red Sox fans serenaded Oakland A’s outfielder Jose Canseco, the first 40-homer/40-stolen-base player in baseball history, with chants of “Ster-oid! Ster-oid!” In response, Canseco struck bodybuilder poses in the outfield.
We now know that Canseco went on over the next half decade to be, as a high school friend who became a baseball agent told me more than 20 years ago, “the Typhoid Mary of steroids,” helping launch the Steroids Era of roughly 1993″? Mass steroid use appears to have spread from the proto-Moneyball Oakland A’s, who went to the World Series in 1988″90, to the Texas Rangers, who happened to be co-owned by George W. Bush.
But what about the years between 1958 and 1988? And what about other sports besides track and baseball, which are often singled out because they test more aggressively?
We know that the 1963 San Diego Chargers employed a strength coach named Alvin Roy, a gym owner from Lake Charles, La., who methodically gave out steroid pills to linemen. The Chargers improved from 4″10 in 1962 to 11″3.
But this wasn”t Roy’s first rodeo. He was an unpaid strength coach for the LSU Tigers in 1958, starting their first weight room. Before then, like many football teams, LSU hadn”t lifted out of fear of becoming “muscle-bound.” Under Roy’s tutelage, LSU immediately improved from 5″5 in 1957 to win the national championship in 1958.
After the Chargers, Roy went on to work for the Kansas City Chiefs, the Dallas Cowboys, and the Oakland Raiders. I”ve been interested in this topic for decades, but I only recently discovered the Alvin Roy connection deep into the past, which says something about how obscure the topic is.
The explosion of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s was part of the delayed hedonistic reaction to the stringent conditions of the Depression and WWII era. But their use tended to be volubly rationalized at the time on revolutionary or utopian principles.
In contrast, the rise of steroids was more furtive, since people who use performance enhancers can”t persuasively claim that they want to overthrow the social order when they clearly just want to be able to work harder at getting ahead within it.
Many steroid-using celebrities deny it. The cleverest, Arnold Schwarzenegger, confessed to using steroids to Barbara Walters way back in 1974, but successfully managed to downplay it as a minor increment to his career. To this day, actors are particularly loath to admit they use anything to change body shapes from role to role: Charlie Sheen is one of the rare stars to admit it, and he claims it was only to add some mph to his fastball in 1989’s Major League. (His father, Martin Sheen, recently argued that Charlie’s 2011 meltdown was more due to steroids than cocaine.)
But it’s difficult to pull together a coherent history of steroids, in part because the subject is of negligible interest to most mainstream intellectuals. With enough digging, you can find exhaustive coverage of steroids in bodybuilding, such as in the three-volume history Muscle, Smoke & Mirrors by Randy Roach. But who reads histories of bodybuilding other than bodybuilders?
The career of Tom Wolfe illustrates this odd dichotomy. Wolfe’s 1968 nonfiction best-seller about novelist Ken Kesey’s promotion of LSD, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, was instantly a cultural touchstone, discussed everywhere in literary journals. Wolfe himself noted that this was an easy book to report because so many of the friends of Kesey whom Wolfe interviewed were themselves outstanding writers, such as Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), who in 2011 married Kesey’s widow.
Wolfe, a Southern conservative by inclination, soon lost interest in LSD. His writing from 1973 onward is instead studded with references to weight lifting and muscles. But nobody ever seemed to notice what Wolfe was driving at.
Finally, in 2012, in a review in The New Yorker entitled “Muscle-Bound,” literary critic James Wood angrily denounced Wolfe’s novel about a weight-lifting Miami Cuban cop, Back to Blood, on the grounds that real people aren”t that interested in how they look. (Perhaps Wood could consult with Miami’s own Jose Canseco?) To this critic, literature and muscles do not mix.
But while there’s no fashionable theory to explain it, people seem to like having more masculine-looking heroes than in the past. Basketball players, for example, were a bunch of elongated ectomorphs until Wilt Chamberlain took up pumping iron at Muscle Beach when traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1968. Logically, it’s a betrayal of feminist ideology that today’s audiences want their heroes such as LeBron James to look like comic-book caricatures of musculature, so it’s best not to mention it.
Another conceptual problem is that it’s often hard to tell the difference between virtuous, clean weight-lifters and cheating steroid-abusers. Lots of people lift without juicing”my best friend has for four decades. But you have to accept reaching a plateau.
Steroids are a peculiar drug from a moral point of view because while goofs like Canseco sometimes used them, they functioned best for outstanding examples of the Protestant work ethic such as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. They let you exercise harder than you could without them, but they don”t relieve the pain of lifting improbable weights.
For example, we know that in baseball, a traditionalist sport with an extremely long regular season that emphasizes showing up for a huge number of games rather than peaking, weight-lifting anything heavier than a beer mug was looked down upon as dysfunctional and being a bad sport. But down through history, the occasional maverick would work out: for example, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth (who hired a personal trainer to toss around the medicine ball with him during the winter), and pitcher Nolan Ryan of the California Angels, who discovered weight training in 1972.