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Original Issue

Time to Get Real

The steroid debate must go far beyond sports

WHAT IF the Mitchell Report had been the findings of an investigation into the use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone not just in baseball but also across America: Steroid Nation.

What if President Bush had looked beyond sports in his 2004 State of the Union address when he said that the use of performance-enhancing drugs sends the wrong message that there are shortcuts to accomplishment and that performance is more important than character.

And what if the medical community's steroids acumen had not lagged a decade behind that of weightlifters and bodybuilders, leaving physicians less educated than their patients, and athletes, young and old, with only doped-up behemoths to answer their questions about those drugs (The Godfather, page 38).

In the 1970s and early '80s, as steroids infested the sports world, the idea of enhancement invaded the popular culture on all fronts. Faster, higher, stronger, to be sure, but also smoother, brighter, tighter, longer. Only in the last dozen years, when the powerful effects of steroids—initially pooh-poohed by doctors—became undeniable did medical science more actively join the debate about the dangers and benefits of steroids and HGH.

Right now there are two obvious reasons to oppose the use of performance-enhancing drugs: 1) if they are dangerous (as they certainly are for healthy children) and 2) if using them is cheating (as it is in sports). But all of the lines keep moving, redrawn by both research and philosophy.

Some argue that HGH and testosterone are natural substances that need to be replenished when the body's supply runs low, as it does when you grow old. Correcting deficiencies with synthetic hormones, in moderation, isn't just permissible, they say, but therapeutic. But is aging something to be "treated," like a disease? The debate has been slowed by the need for deeper research, but that is on the way—science is catching up and in some cases taking the lead, as with genetic manipulation (The Future, page 44).

Athletes have dominated the headlines, but the culture of enhancement has pushed the use of steroids and HGH everywhere. It's not that the emperor has no clothes but that he's juiced. As senior writer Jack McCallum reports (The Real Dope, page 28), "Crucial medical questions are being debated by serious medical people, yet we seem determined to hear them only in the limited context of Roger Clemens's injected buttocks." Everyone involved, especially members of Congress, needs a broader view. Sports is about playing fair. Medicine is about enhancing life. These two ideas are braiding quickly, which is why SI has organized an investigative unit to report on the ever more complex issue of drugs and sports.

This team is led by senior editor Larry Burke and supported by senior writers George Dohrmann and L. Jon Wertheim, associate editor Luis Fernando Llosa and writer-reporter David Epstein. Epstein was the lead researcher on the Special Report in this issue, responsible for much of the investigative and scientific reporting. Epstein studied environmental science and astronomy at Columbia (where he was twice All-East as an 800-meter runner), graduating in 2002. He later earned master's degrees in environmental science and journalism from Columbia, then joined SI in '06. "His passion for science is matched by his skill as a writer and doggedness as a reporter," says Burke. "He enjoys taking on the most ambitious stories."

That's where we're going with this.



Epstein brings science expertise to SI's coverage.