By definition, sport involves competition and almost every competitor plays to win. As far back as the ancient Greek Olympics, competitors put their faith in eating a variety of things—figs, sesame seeds, wine, meat, mushrooms—to aid performance.
In the late 1800s, athletes used stimulants based on drugs made from South American and African plants. The word “dope” first appeared in an English dictionary in 1889. Dope was an opium- based mixture given to horses so they would run faster and not get hurt. Cyclers, swimmers, and boxers all took dope to enhance their performance.
At first, many people viewed the use of drugs in a positive light. In the hundred years before World War I, people embraced the concept of “progress.” Scientists, athletes, and much of the public believed that drugs had the potential to improve society by improving the human body.
Stimulants such as strychnine and ephedrine were especially popular in sporting communities. Amphetamines (first created in 1887) and methamphetamine (known as “speed” and first produced in 1919) were widely used. Some nations experimented with the use of amphetamines for soldiers as a way to solve the problem of fatigue.
As fast as scientists invented new drugs, athletes tried them out. In the early 1900s, scientific research into the human body began to show that interval training, resistance training, and varying the level of exercise intensity could improve athletic performance. Participants and spectators saw the link between science knowledge and success in sports.
The desirability of using drugs in sports became more important in the 1920s and 1930s. Modern athletics became increasingly affected by money and politics. As leisure time in modern societies increased, winning offered fame and financial wealth to successful competitors. The monetary rewards of a successful sporting career became equal to one in politics, the military, or even business. Figures like Babe Ruth (baseball), Red Grange (football), Bill Tilden (tennis), and Jack Dempsey (boxing) became mythic American celebrities. In 1936, Adolf Hitler made a great propaganda show of hosting the Summer Olympics in Berlin. Despite the four individual gold medals by African American Jesse Owens, Germany topped the medal table. Nazi propagandists used the results of the Olympics to reinforce their claim to racial superiority. Sports were no longer peripheral activities of little importance.
After World War II, many athletes were entangled in the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both sides tried to prove the superiority of their political and economic systems in any way possible. Sports became a propaganda tool and athletic success was closely tied to nationalism and patriotism.
Countries now tried to “win” the Olympics, and medal counts by nation became very important. Some events, such as the Hungarian defeat of the Soviet water polo team (1956), or the U.S. gold medal in ice hockey (1980), took on huge symbolic significance.
By the 1970s, elite sports had become deadly serious, filled with athletes obsessed with winning. The media, advertisers, spectators, and sports governing bodies all wanted to witness great events with heroic athletes breaking world records. In this atmosphere, athletes, coaches, and government officials all saw the value of anabolic steroids.
Anabolic Steroids Enter Sports
Steroids entered the American competitive world when bodybuilders in California discovered the drug after World War II. Steroids helped muscle growth and limited the breakdown of protein in muscle cells. Bodybuilders quickly realized steroids could increase the muscle gain resulting from strenuous exercise and maximize the effect of a high protein diet.
In 1954, American physician John Ziegler attended the world weightlifting championships in Vienna, Austria. At this competition, a Russian doctor told him how hormonal treatments had greatly enhanced the performance of Soviet athletes. Ziegler himself witnessed athletes taking testosterone. Ziegler was not filled with moral outrage.
He simply decided that the American weightlifters also needed to use drugs in order to compete effectively. When Ziegler returned to the United States, he received funding from the drug company Ciba and helped synthesize the first so-called anabolic steroid - Methandienone, also known as methandrostenolone. Ciba released it in the United States in 1958.
Anabolic steroids quickly became an essential part of the bodybuilding, weightlifting, and cycling subcultures. News of the effectiveness of these new drugs spread by word of mouth to competitors in other strength-intensive sports.
Almost all the best American throwers in field sports of that era tried anabolic steroids, including Randy Matson (1968 Olympic champion and world record holder in the shot put), Dallas Long (1964 Olympic shot put champion), Harold Connolly (1956 Olympic champion in the hammer throw), and Russ Hodge (world record holder in the decathlon). None of these athletes received major criticism because in the 1960s, anabolic steroid use was not banned at the Olympics. Athletes and coaches did not question the morality of taking anabolic steroids; the only debate was over which drugs were more effective.
In the 1970s, the use of steroids spread from strength-dependent sports such as weightlifting and field events into other sports such as hockey, swimming, baseball, and track.
Athletes realized that steroids reduced the soreness that normally results from strenuous exercise. Steroids allowed the user to train for longer periods at a more intensive level without injury. For many elite athletes, recovery time was the key to their training.
The sooner their bodies could recover from an intense workout or painful game, the sooner they could return to the practice field or weight room. This was one of the greatest benefits of steroids, equally important to explosive muscle growth.