Volume 93, Issue 2
Friday, May 21, 1999
Halftime: Androstenedione in U.S. athletics
TOO OFTEN DRUG USE HAS BEEN AT THE HEART OF A MAJOR ATHLETIC EVENT. Canadians hung their heads after sprinter Ben Johnson tested positive for anabolic steroids during the 1988 Olympics.
By Sean Maraj
Questions have been buzzing around performance enhancing natural substances since home-run king Mark McGwire made a particular supplement, androstenedione, a household name. The ethical debate over their use has crossed the paths of all major sports, though a final decision on the acceptance of natural supplements is far from the finish line.
While nutritional supplements are often quite legal, some have long term side-effects similar to those associated with anabolic steroids.
"Androstenedione is available over the counter and easy to buy, some stores don't always sell it to people under 18 but it is readily available over the internet," said Laura Drabkie, a doctor for the United States Olympic Committee on the availability of the supplement.
Natural supplements which are legal have avoided the negative stigma which follows anabolic steroids. As such, the natural drug business has become a billion dollar one over the last two years despite the potential for severe long term effects.
"Androstenedione has long term effects, the same as any other steroid there is an increase risk of acne, kidney and liver dysfunction and shrinkage of the testes," Drabkie explained.
Many sports associations in the United States are already taking steps to control these substances but many others still lag behind.
"In December 1996 the [National Football League's] doctors determined androstenedione was a form of steroid and it was banned," said Leslie Hammond, spokesperson for the NFL. Hammond was unwilling to discuss details of the organization's testing program.
The National Basketball Association currently has no formal policy in place. While Major League Baseball does have a very detailed drug and steroids policy, it does not include natural supplements.
The organizations in the U.S. which maintain the strictest program in the use of these supplements are the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Heather McKenzie, an assistant at NCAA Health Science Centre, described their program as banning anything which enhances performance.
"Two tests are conducted year round which include steroids and agents found in vitamins, urine manipulators and street drugs," she said.
The NCAA program is similar to the one maintained by the International Olympic Committee. The IOC suspended shot-putter Randy Barnes and sprinter Dennis Mitchell last year for using the same substance which helped Mark McGwire rewrite baseball history by breaking the major league home-run record.
Debra Allen, an IOC representative at the Canadian Olympic Association, said a drug testing agency is being implemented by the IOC which will enforce a ban on anabolic steroids and natural supplements such as androstenedione. "At the same time the IOC calls for wider co-operation from sports associations and pharmaceutical companies in relation to natural supplements," she added.
With policies remaining inconsistent across organizations, control of natural supplements may be harder to enforce. While some professional outfits have been reluctant to take measures against these kinds of drug enhancements, steps are being taken to control the abuse of androstenedione in particular.
The IOC took the first steps towards setting up world wide standards for enforcing drug policies recently at a world conference.
"Androstenedione is banned by the IOC and all major sports except Major League Baseball," Drabkie said when asked about a standardization throughout American sport.
Drabkie recognized the use of these drugs has raised many ethical questions. One of great importance, she said, is the message high profile drug use is sending to young athletes.
"Androstenedione is a performance enhancing supplement and the message we're sending to young athletes is that it's acceptable to use a drug which has severe consequences, as it reacts the same way as steroids on the body," she said.
Many sport organizations have made an effort to eliminate the androstenedione and more will follow, Drabkie added.
Copyright © The Gazette 1999