Latest raids in the US of undercover steroid labs suggest the market for steroids goes way beyond the world of elite athletes
Earlier this month, the Drug Enforcement Administration announced that it had busted 16 underground labs and seized 134,000 steroid tablets and pills, 8,200 liters of injectable steroid liquid (that’s 140 kegs worth), and 1,400 pounds of the raw powder from which steroids are made. In Arizona alone, four labs and 150,000 doses of all types were taken by DEA agents in an undercover operation that spanned 20 states and four foreign countries.
There are, clearly, a lot of steroids out in the world. Investigators suspect there are hundreds more labs churning out performance-enhancing drugs. According to the DEA, most of the material used to make steroids isn’t even in the U.S. – it’s in China. As big as it was, the DEA inquiry offers a view through the smallest of keyholes of this illicit business.
One reasonable inference from the amount of steroids seized might be: there must be a heck of a lot of athletes who are doping. And that’s true.
This month, the British Parliament released a previously unpublished study
by the World Anti-Doping Agency that used anonymous surveys to estimate the prevalence of doping at some recent competitions. It estimated that between 29 and 34 percent of the athletes at the 2011 world championships in track and field in Daegu, South Korea used performance-enhancing drugs that season. As many as half of the competitors at the 2011 Pan-Arab Games in Doha, Qatar had recently juiced, the study found. (I was at those Pan-Arab Games, and privy to the barely noted fact that nine gold medals were stripped before the event even ended.)
Amazingly enough, world-class athletes are merely the fine layer of frost atop the iceberg’s tip when it comes to the steroid economy.
To illustrate, and speaking of ice, take Iceland. As part of this recent operation, a lab was busted there. Iceland sent five athletes total, all skiers, to the last Olympics. (Compare that to nine people who were arrested at the steroid lab.) It’s unlikely that an underground steroid economy in Iceland subsists on elite athletes alone. So who is driving this tremendous market?
One answer is non-elite athletes. In years of reporting on performance-enhancing drugs, I’ve frequently been asked why athletes in smaller sports or facing lower stakes would dope, given that there’s little money in it for them.
My answer: people like being good at sports, and anyone who has ever scheduled their life around training for a sport, no matter how big or small, would never have to ask that question.
My alma mater, Columbia University, launched a steroid probe into the football team way back in 1988, when the team had not won a game in five years. Two players admitted to steroid use as part of that internal investigation.
More than a decade later, while I was a Columbia student-athlete, two students were busted
for selling steroids on campus, and one claimed he sold to an athlete.
This is a university that gives no athletic scholarships and whose greatest sports successes (post-Lou Gehrig) have come in the pool, on the track, and in the fencing hall. I happen to know about these incidents only because I went there. And still, my reporting has shown that there are nowhere near enough sub-elite athletes to account for the booming trade in illegal steroids. So, again, who is driving this market?
In my observation, the main customers for what’s being churned out of the illegal labs the DEA took down are gym-goers who want to get stronger and look different, supplemented by people in professions where physical strength is prized, such as police officers and soldiers.
For a 2008 Sports Illustrated article on steroids that I co-wrote with L. Jon Wertheim, I spent several days in England with a man named Tony Fitton. Despite not having a college degree, in the 1980s Fitton was given a faculty position at Auburn University, in the National Strength Research Center.
Fitton was already well-versed in steroid use. Years earlier, he had disrupted a study on the training effects of steroids when he began buying the… Continue Reading…