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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Athletes and steroids

(Top, Michael Johnson; on left, Usain Bolt)

The New York Times had a small article two days ago about how Usain Bolt is ready to start his campaign this spring. One of the most amazing things about Bolt is that not only is he the greatest sprinter of all time, but he actually seems to be clean. He has none of the signs of steroid use that characterize so many other top athletes in track and other sports.

He is relatively slim, with arms that are downright skinny. A lot of the top sprinters have abnormally muscled upper bodies, with convex trapeziuses (the muscles that go from the top of the shoulder to the neck, commonly referred to as traps), convex yet muscular stomachs, and huge arms.

There are people who are just naturally muscular. Mike Tyson at age 21 was very thickly muscled, but pictures of him as a 13 year old reveal a similarly muscular build. Michelle Obama has traps like a world class sprinter, but I'm guessing she is clean as well (she has no reason to juice). The key is, they were always that way.

Another side effect of steroids is that because they thicken the muscles, the veins are often squeezed to the surface of the body, and you will see veins in places where most people don't have them, like the upper pectoral muscle, or the front of the shoulder, or the side of the leg.

Bolt had no such displaced veins.

Another thing you see with steroid users is that their movements become less fluid. People who abuse them for long periods sometimes end up moving somewhat stiffly, like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots.

Bolt ran with an loose, rollicking gait, even leaning to each side just a bit.

Another sign is behavior. Juicers often fly into steroid rages. While these tend to occur in private, off camera, there is often a noticeable change in the general mien of those who take male hormones. They take on a much more forbidding air, engage in macho posturing, and will wear what is referred to as a "game face."

Bolt, by contrast, was always the picture of playfulness, clowning around even in the starting blocks in Beijing.

Finally, one thing you see with steroid users is a sudden improvement in performance, often suspiciously late in their careers, well past the age when you'd expect them to be getting better naturally. This usually goes hand in hand with a sudden change in their build.

Bolt was great from the time he was a World Junior champion at age 15, competing against athletes up to four years older.

Athletes who take steroids seem to be more susceptible to injury as well. Thus far Bolt has remained injury-free.

A friend suggested yesterday that Bolt had to be juiced, otherwise how could he be beating so many juiced athletes? It's true that Bolt is so good he made the other sprinters in his Olympic finals look, well, Caucasian. But as long as there is no other circumstantial evidence, he should get the benefit of the doubt.

Michael Johnson is a different story. He made the Olympic team in 1992 but didn't do well in Barcelona. At the time he was a perfectly respectable 20.0/44.2 sprinter with a somewhat skinny build. Four years later in Atlanta he was a different man, with a much thicker trunk and upper body muscles so well defined that when he settled into the starting blocks you could see every last muscle striation in the front of his shoulders. In his quarter finals and semis he looked as if he were jogging to times in the low-44 second range in the 400, then unleashed a 43.39 to win the finals. He was even more impressive in the 200, setting a world record of 19.32 which at the time put him .34 ahead of the second fastest runner in history. Johnson's later career was beset by injuries. He did set a world record in the 400 in 1999 (I was in the stadium for the race) and won the event at the 2000 Olympics, but even at that meet he was unable to run in the 4 x 400 relay.

Johnson never tested positive, but a lot of athletes seem to have fooled the testers.

I once knew a guy who competed for the US as a wrestler in the 1988 Olympics. His parents went to watch him in Seoul, and while they were there they went to watch the track and field competition one day. They happened to sit next to Mr. and Mrs. Ashford, parents of Evelyn, the sprinter whose world record in the 100 had been beaten by Florence Griffith Joyner. Mr. and Mrs. Ashford told the wrestler's parents that every single sprinter on the US team (from 400 meters on down) was on steroids except for their daughter and Edwin Moses, the great 400 intermediate hurdler.

The wrestler's mother asked, "Even Carl Lewis?" Yes, came the reply.

Flojo, by the way, had won a silver medal in the 200 in 1984 with a 22.5. She retired for two years and then made a comeback. In her new incarnation she came back much more muscular, and much faster, setting a world record of 21.34 in the 200 which has not been touched since. Asked to explain her newfound muscularity, she said at the time that she had taken up weight lifting. (She also had a noticeably deeper voice in 1988; it is as yet unclear whether it was the squats or curls which caused that.)

Track, baseball, cycling, power lifting, and football have all gotten reputations as dirty sports, but my own sport of swimming is certainly not immune. There were the famous state sponsored cases of doping in East Germany from the 1970's to the 1980's and in China in the 1990's. Because of those, Americans are often (understandably) willing to point the finger at swimmers from China and former Eastern bloc countries. But Americans seem to generally turn a blind eye to many cases where American swimmers have obviously been juiced. Some of these swimmers were never been caught and thus still enjoy golden reputations.

One such is Lenny Krayzelburg, who always enjoyed fawning press. In 1996 he competed at the NCAA championships for USC as a 20 year old junior and swam the 100 yard backstroke in 50.2 and the 200 back in 1:48.8 -- respectable times, but hardly world class. One year later he competed at the same meet and went a 46.5 and 1:40.6. That kind of one year improvement would be hard to believe if it came from a 17 year old who was still maturing physically. But from a 21-year-old?

Krayzelburg was always described as having been a "skinny youth," yet when he burst onto the world class scene in 1997 he was muscled like a cartoon superhero. Skinny boys almost always turn out to be relatively skinny young men, just as well muscled young boys turn out to be well muscled young men. And so on. It's possible to change your physique somewhat through diet and exercise, but it's not possible to undergo a wholesale change in physique that makes a mockery of your genetic heritage unless you've had some artificial help.

After 2000, Krayzelburg's career was hobbled by injuries, though he did manage to make the Olympic team in 2004.

There have been others who have undergone similarly remarkable transformations, but there isn't space to list them all.

When obvious juicers are asked if they are doing so, the answer is always, "Oh, I'm on a new weight-lifting program," or "I take lots of protein powder," or "I'm working with a new dietician who's helping me put on more muscle."

Even when the athletes test positive, none ever say, "Okay, you caught me. I did it." It's always, "The testing procedures are flawed," or "The second bottle must have been tampered with," or "Someone must have spiked my water bottle."

Given the weaker moral (if not muscle) fiber of those who juice, perhaps this is not so surprising.

The next time you hear such a denial, don't listen. Just look at the evidence instead.


Anonymous said...

Would just like to mention that it is considered among the track community that Calvin Smith a member of that 1988 team did not use steriods.

John Craig said...

Anon --
I can believe that. He was always slim, and never acted as if he were on them. Plus he didn't have that unnaturally long career longevity which some of the more recent sprinters have exhibited.

Anonymous said...

I remember Florence Griffith Joyner, appreciating her style back in the day. It's disappointing to learn that she possibly juiced.


John Craig said...

Birdie --
Flojo was one of the most blatant cases of juicing ever.

Anonymous said...

I really am disappointed to learn about her having juiced because when she was alive, I admired her, respected her, thinking that she'd done well in life, using her athletic abilities, winning races fair and square. It just never occurred to me that she could be so dishonest.