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Original Issue

Growth Industry

The Steroid Era may be over, but the equally insidious HGH isn't going away

IN THE WORLD of artificial performance enhancers, human growth hormone is hardly an innovation. In 1991 the late Lyle Alzado told SI (below) that many NFL players were on it. Track and field officials have worried about HGH for more than a decade. But the alleged admission by Jason Grimsley (below) to federal agents that he and many other major leaguers use the substance may mean that HGH is not only still a presence in pro sports but also is poised to become more popular. "This is going to be a hard one to deal with," says Dr. Karlis Ullis, medical director of The Sports Medicine and Preventative Medical Group in Santa Monica, Calif., and an HGH expert. "Now that the word is out, even more people are going to start using it."

HGH's appeal to athletes seeking an edge is obvious: The synthetic substance, which replicates a hormone produced by the pituitary gland, is used by doctors to stimulate patients with growth deficiencies and wasting conditions. It increases muscle mass and stimulates tissue repair, speeding recovery time from injury or fatigue. Side effects may include diabetes, thyroid dysfunction, high blood pressure and colon tumors, but not enough studies have been done to fully assess its dangers.

Uncertainty also surrounds the HGH blood test that the World Anti-Doping Agency first used at the 2004 Olympics. Baseball says it is unreliable, citing the lack of positive tests that turned up at the Athens Games. WADA member Dr. Gary Wadler concedes that an HGH test "is a work in progress" but calls MLB's reasoning "fallacious."

MLB, the NFL and the NBA have banned HGH, but the unions in all three sports have denounced the blood test, saying giving blood violates their members' privacy. Since a urine test is years away at best, that stance all but assures that athletes can take HGH without consequence.