Of all of the substances ingested by athletes to gain a competitive edge, anabolic steroids are the most notorious. Steroids have taken on a broad, and sometimes inaccurate, range of meanings in the public consciousness, as the term is popularly and incorrectly used to describe any type of drug that enhances athletic performance.
Steroids are a class of substances that share a fat-soluble, carbon-based molecular structure. Unlike water-soluble minerals like potassium and sodium, steroids are stored in cell tissues. Vitamin D, testosterone (the naturally occurring male hormone), and a range of anti-inflammatory compounds, such as corticosteroids, are steroids. Anabolic steroids are a form of synthesized testosterone, which is primarily intended to stimulate muscle growth.
Anabolic steroids were first produced in the 1930s, when the international medical community began to better understand the relationship between testosterone and the development and maintenance of increased muscle mass. Russian weightlifters were the first athletes known to use steroids in a monitored, medically supervised sense; it was discovered
Anabolic steroids have a number of limited conventional medical applications, chiefly when the body produces too little testosterone, or to combat muscle wasting caused by disease. Dreams of enhanced performance gave anabolic steroids their athletic preeminence. Athletes who are driven to succeed are often prepared to assume risks; in the early days of steroid popularity, that risk was the unknown, as relatively little research existed as to the long-term effects of these substances on the human body. It is now beyond dispute that anabolic steroids are an exceedingly harmful substance on the body when ingested.
Anabolic steroids will assist an athlete to train harder, with fewer rest periods required, and they help the body produce muscle mass at a greater rate than can be achieved in conventional training. Track and field events, particularly the Olympic sprint competitions in 1988, were the first dramatic worldwide proof of the power of steroids. Canadian Ben Johnson shattered the existing Olympic and world records in the 100-m sprint; Johnson was later stripped of his medal when it was determined that he and others on the Canadian track team had engaged in years of systematic steroid use.
In recent years, prominent international soccer players, track athletes, and American baseball and football players have all been exposed to have illegally taken steroids. Despite the presence of competitive sanctions in virtually all professional and international amateur competitions, coupled with unassailable evidence of the physical and psychological risk to steroid users, its use has been documented in significant numbers in North America and Europe among athletes as young as 14 years. A significant industry devoted to the science of masking steroid use when the athlete is tested at competition—usually through urine sample—has enjoyed a parallel growth to the use of the drug itself.
Steroids have been declared illegal in all international sport events, due primarily to the very serious physical risks they pose to all athletes who ingest them. These risks include liver disease, high blood pressure and cholesterol, acne, severe mood swings (often referred to as "roid rage"), and psychological dependence.
Men who take anabolic steroids are also prone to develop prostate disease; women are more susceptible to baldness and disrupted menstrual cycles.
The pursuit of athletic excellence will inevitably include the challenge of surpassing an established physical limit. Anabolic steroids represent risks to the modern athlete that far outweigh any short-term competitive benefits that may be gained through their use.