How to Tell If Your Sports Hero Is on Steroids

by Steve Sailer

UPI, September 24 2000


The revelation that C.J. Hunter, Olympic superstar Marion Jones' 330 pound shot-putter husband, tested positive in July for nandrolone, a banned performance-enhancing steroid, casts an unwelcome pall of suspicion on Ms. Jones, the Sydney Olympics, and sports in general. How can sports fans know for sure whether their heroes and heroines are clean or dirty?

They can't. But savvy sports insiders use a series of rules of thumb to evaluate how suspicious they ought to be. While these informal guidelines aren't very accurate at detecting athletes who cheat just a little, they will raise warning flags about jocks who use far more steroids than their peers do. None of these little tests prove guilt or innocence, but combined they can help fans keep from being so nave that they get their hearts broken when their favorites get caught. Further, they can help restore the reputation of tarnished heroes like the late American football great Walter Payton, who was the subject of much posthumous speculation that his premature death from a rare liver disease stemmed from steroid use.

Is there any sport that doesn't have a problem with performance-enhancing drugs? Sure, there's well ... there's sailing. Or at least that was the one Olympic sport that the old East German doping-industrial complex didn't bother perverting with steroids.

And baseball doesn't have a steroid problem, even though enormously bulked-up sluggers are now pounding unprecedented numbers of homers. Baseball has no drug problem in the same sense as the old joke: "I don't have a drinking problem. I drink, I fall down, I pass out. What's the problem?" Unlike the Olympics, Major League Baseball refuses to test players for steroids.

Even though a reporter caught home-run champ Mark McGwire red-handed with a bottle of androstenedione, a sort of Steroid-Lite banned by the Olympics and practically all other sports organizations besides baseball, the American press hardly paused in its celebration of how folk hero McGwire and other sluggers had "returned the innocence" to the game.

What about you culturati out there who find doping scandals to be just another reason to disdain sports? You have no reason to feel smug. After Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cheerfully admitted to using steroids to become the world's top bodybuilder, made it big in Hollywood, many other action stars suddenly developed the kind of ripped musculature that comes most conveniently from a vial. And, at least one highly respected young serious actor started changing his body type from skinny to heavily-muscled and back to fit whatever role he was playing. [Eventually, this Oscar-winner became so out of control he wound up in jail for beating a photographer.] Even certain classical musicians use the calming cardiac drugs called beta-blockers to overcome stage jitters.

In general, however, the simpler the sport, the more drugs can do for you. The main drugs do one thing only. For example, steroids and testosterone build muscle mass, "epo" increases aerobic endurance, and beta-blockers aid precision.

So, drug cheaters are most rampant in sports that test just one talent. To the surprise of nobody, for example, much of the Bulgarian weight-lifting team was sent packing from Sydney after failing their tests. Similarly, the Tour de France long-distance cycling race almost crashed and burned a couple of years ago when many contestants were caught using epo.

In contrast, golf tests both power off the tee and delicacy around the green, so drug abuse is far less of a problem. Steroids might help a golfer pound 400 yard drives, but the "'roid rage" that frequently accompanies injections of artificial male hormones would hardly aid his putting game. While golf's organizing bodies won't ban beta-blockers, since they don't want the geezers on the Senior Tour keeling over on the 18th green with heart attacks, even some pros with legitimate cardiac problems have stopped taking beta-blockers. They find the medication too calming. It strips them of the "fire in the belly" they need from tee to green.

Within sports, players at certain positions are less likely to abuse drugs. While baseball hitters today are slamming more and longer homeruns than ever before, pitchers aren't throwing the ball much faster than Sandy Koufax did forty years ago. Why aren't pitchers on the steroid bandwagon to the same extent as hitters? Probably because steroids increase the chance of injury.

For example, there's a veteran slugger who is sometimes said to be the Typhoid Mary of steroids in baseball [Update 2005: I was referring to Jose Canseco, who later admitted to steroid abuse.]. As he went from franchise to franchise, his new teammates [for example, Rafael Palmeiro] suddenly started bulking up just like him. When healthy, he's put up some amazing numbers. But he's also suffered lots of strange injuries. Being a hitter, this colorful character's been able to come back over and over. Pitchers, however, are always one torn muscle away from a rewarding career in insurance sales. Thus, they appear to have been more cautious about doping.

The Olympics frequently get a bum rap from American sportswriters as being uniquely tainted by drug abuse. Compared to baseball, the big difference is that cheating is more noticeable in Sydney because the International Olympic Committee at least makes an effort to catch the bad guys.

There is a lot of evidence that the Olympics are by no means totally corrupted. The tougher drug tests instituted following sprinter Ben Johnson's disgraceful disqualification at the 1988 Games have lessened the rampant abuses of the past.

This is most evident in the decline in women's running performance in the Nineties. Since women only average one tenth as much natural testosterone as men, women get more bang from the buck from steroids. In the Seventies and Eighties, the fearsome frauleins of East Germany set world records 49 times in the ten most important running races. Then, in 1989 tougher drug testing started and the Berlin Wall fell, exposing the Communist regime's industrial-scale cheating. Since then, the women of unified Germany haven't set any records at all.

Indeed, women from all over the globe set only seven records in the Nineties, while men were setting 38. This is because many of the incredible women's marks from Eighties remain out of reach with better drug testing.

Four of those seven women's records were set at the dubious 1993 and 1997 Chinese National Games. However, at the subsequent Olympics, where drug testing is much stricter, they've crashed back to earth. Similarly, Chinese women swimmers perform far better at home, shielded from international vigilance.

Moreover, spectacular distance running times continue to be turned in by young Kalenjin tribesmen straight off the highland farms of Kenya. While some Kenyan veterans living in Europe at least have the opportunity to abuse epo, the chance that each year's new crop of Kenyan farm boy runners is using sophisticated pharmaceuticals is nil.

Finally, another reassuring sign was the accomplishments of Canadian sprinters at the Atlanta Olympics of 1996. After steroid testing at the 1988 Olympics proved that Canadian 100 meter dash gold medallist Ben Johnson should have instead been competing in the Fuel-Injected Funny Car division at the local drag strip, a shamed Canada voluntarily instituted tougher drug testing than the Olympic standard. Despite the world's toughest testing, Canadian Donovan Bailey won the 100 meters in 1996. Even more notably, the Canadian 4x100m sprint relay team smoked the mighty American team to win the gold. This suggests that at least in men's sprinting, the impact of steroids is now fairly marginal.

(Unfortunately, only recently have tests for the Human Growth hormone, a less powerful muscle-builder, been developed. The main symptom of HGh use that's visible to fans is enlargement of the jaw. One famous veteran American Olympian showed up at the 1996 Games looking like a squirrel holding nuts in his cheeks.)

However, the Olympics tend to suffer some unique vulnerabilities. For instance, many Olympic sports are simple and thus easily exploited by drug-takers.

Further, a single Olympics can make an athlete's career, encouraging him to bet his health on a single death or glory year. For example, in both the 1984 Olympics and the 1987 World Championships, a very slender Florence Griffith-Joyner finished a frustrating second in the 200 meters to suspiciously "ripped" women. To prepare for the 1988 Olympics, she radically changed her training regimen, took advice from Ben Johnson, and emerged looking like a comic book superheroine. That year she obliterated all the sprint records and won three gold medals. She then promptly retired before tougher drug testing began in 1989. While the secret of how Flo-Jo did it died with her, she made herself a household name at a single Olympics. In contrast, a golfer like Jack Nicklaus can enjoy a 40-year long career. Since his earnings aren't guaranteed by multi-year contracts, he can less afford to risk his health.

What are some of the other signs of steroid use? One is bad acne in an adult. Apparently, that's why some women sprinters in the Eighties raced in heavy makeup. Steroids can also give a woman a deep, manly voice. They can also generate a Neanderthal-style brow. Like Human Growth hormone, they can also enlarge the jaw.

Ben Johnson presented a laundry list of telltale signs of steroid use. Sports fans should study his case carefully. Late in his career, long after normal physical maturation stops, he suddenly changed from shy, slender, and slow to surly, strong, and speedy.

[2005 Addition: It seems implausible that athletes who don't lift weights would take steroids, since people normally get much more bang for their buck with steroids if they lift weights. (One early academic study of steroids concluded that steroids didn't make people stronger because they didn't allow either the test or control group to pump iron.) And they could probably get significantly stronger by lifting weights. Typically, steroids are most tempting to those who have maxed out their natural potential as weight-lifters.  Michael Jordan did not begin lifting weights until he had already become an NBA legend. Ken Griffey Jr. did not lift weights during his glory years in the 1990s, and ironman Cal Ripken didn't start until near the end of his career. Slugger Fred McGriff stuck to light Nautilus workouts. Football icon Herschel Walker only did push-ups.]

So, what about Marion Jones? In her defense, she does not exhibit that many of the classic Ben Johnson symptoms, other than being highly muscular and extremely fast. Rather than being a late-bloomer, she was one of the greatest American schoolgirl sprinters ever. She qualified for the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team at 16.

While her husband, the busted shot-putter, is notoriously moody and gruff, she does a fine job of putting up with the constant interruptions generated by her fame.

The pitch of Ms. Jones' voice is pleasantly feminine. Her complexion is lovely. And although when viewed in profile, her jaw juts a little bit like Jay Leno's, when seen straight on, her heart-shaped face is quite pretty.

So, at this point, allegations against Marion Jones remain mostly guilt-by-association.

Finally, rather than end on a cynical note, let's use these rules of thumb to rehabilitate the reputation of the great Chicago Bear running back Walter Payton. After he died of liver disease, sports talk radio was full of speculation that steroids might have damaged that organ.

Yet, Payton exhibited few of the signs associated with known steroid-users.

He was not a particularly late-bloomer. He set records in college and was the fifth choice in the National Football League draft.

By NFL standards, he was a rather small player. He was extremely solid, but he didn't look like a body-builder.

He never exhibited 'roid rage. Indeed, his nickname was "Sweetness."

He had a remarkably high-pitched voice, a near-falsetto similar to Motown singer Smokey Robinson's.

He was never, ever injured. He missed only one game in his long career, and that was due to the flu.

He didn't suddenly deflate upon retirement. After his death, a radio host remembered playing in Payton's charity golf tournament a decade after his retirement. After the golf, Payton, a life-long prankster, snuck up on a friend and suddenly lifted him over his head and twirled him around. The DJ later gave Payton a friendly slap on the back, and almost broke his hand on Walter's rock-hard body.

Did he suddenly quit before drug testing? No, he retired after accomplishing his goals of winning the Super Bowl and setting the all time rushing yardage record.

In summary, we can't know all the truth about everybody. Still, the intelligent sports fan can develop a sense of who is highly suspect and who is not.

Steve Sailer ( is a columnist for and the film critic for The American Conservative.

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