Weightlifting put sport on steroids – now ex-users can help the clean-up – Insidethegames.biz
In June last year, Forbes magazine published its list of the 100 highest earners in sport.
Down at number 35 was the world’s 26th-ranked tennis player Kei Nishikori, from Japan, and not far below him was Paul Pogba, a footballer whose form has been so so-so Manchester United want to sell him.
Both had injury problems in 2019 but that did not stop them earning about the same as the entire annual budget of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which has to get by on $35 million (£27 million/€32 million) a year.
Of course you could argue that the money earned by an individual has nothing to do with WADA’s finances, but it does show just how little is spent on catching cheats in sport.
Lack of investment was evident when, a few weeks after Forbes put Lionel Messi top of its list - on $127 million (£99 million/€116 million), more than three and a half times WADA’s budget ­- a team of researchers from the University of Lausanne announced their findings.
They had analysed more than 1,200 blood samples of endurance athletes who competed at the 2011 and 2013 athletics World Championships and found that nearly one in five showed evidence of blood doping.
But just try catching them when, largely through lack of research funding, you have been unable to develop a reliable test for erythropoietin (EPO), which has been so much harder to detect than other performance-enhancing drugs.
Only three of the 1,300 adverse analytical findings in Olympic sports in 2013 came from blood samples, none of which were taken out-of-competition.
Overall there were 235 doping violations in track and field that year at a detection rate of around 0.9 per cent, which had dipped a little lower by the time of the latest WADA report, for 2018.
Partly because WADA spent so much on dealing with the Russian doping scandal, its funding for research projects, which are so important in doping detection, dropped drastically over a 10-year period to 2018, when it stood at a paltry $1.5 million (£1.2 million/€1.4 million).
Lionel Messi earns that much in four days.
All the more remarkable, then, that another few weeks on from the Lausanne research announcement there was news of a breakthrough in detecting blood doping by the high-profile sports scientist Professor Yannis Pitsiladis.
With the help of WADA funding, and after many years of research, Pitsiladis had developed a way of using gene expression to determine whether an athlete had used EPO.
When certain genes have been turned on and off by banned drugs, it will show up weeks or even months later.
In current tests, EPO will show up only when a blood sample is taken within 24 to 72 hours of the drug having been used.
No wonder Pitsiladis’ research, which started way back in 2006, was labelled “groundbreaking” by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which may use the technology at Tokyo 2020.
This was “the most significant development in the fight against doping since the introduction of the athlete biological passport more than a decade ago”, by a man who worked on preparations for Eliud Kipchoge’s sub-two-hour marathon, who chairs the Scientific Commission of the International Sports Medicine Federation and who sits on the IOC’s Medical and Scientific Commission.
Pitsiladis is a professor of sport and exercise science at the University of Brighton on England’s south coast, where he is leading research into gender transition for the IOC, and another WADA-funded project which has been a talking point in weightlifting in recent weeks.
On podcasts that have a dedicated following in strength sports, one of Pitsiladis’ team, Alex Kolliari-Turner, has been talking about the project - a collaboration between the University of Brighton and the University of Rome “Foro Italico” - and putting out an appeal for steroid users to volunteer as research subjects.
The aim of the Anglo-Italian project, which is seeking another two years of funding from WADA, is to investigate whether steroid users retain a “muscle memory” benefit from the drugs long after they stop taking them.
Scientists studied muscle memory and steroid exposure in mice seven years ago in Sweden but no time-course studies have been carried out in humans to see if they retain a benefit after using anabolic steroids.
There is a huge gap in the study of humans who take, or have taken, steroids, said Kolliari-Turner, who became ever more interested in steroids during his studies and is now working with Pitsiladis.
Any finding of a retained benefit from steroids, perhaps years later, would have “important implications for the length of doping bans after an athlete is caught taking anabolic steroids”, Kolliari-Turner said.
Meaningful findings for publication or academic peer review are years away yet, but the observational study is going well - 44 people have already taken part - and Kolliari-Turner is looking for more steroid users to come forward, from Britain and elsewhere in Europe.
Kolliari-Turner is a powerlifter at local level, a personal trainer and a graduate of Oxford University in biological sciences.
His thesis at Brighton concerns whether human muscle exhibits a memory of anabolic steroid exposure, and is funded by WADA.
He also has a deep knowledge of the history of steroids in sport, in which a single weightlifting club in York, Pennsylvania, played such an important role.
In an interview with insidethegames in Brighton, before he explained more about the research project Kolliari-Turner gave a run-through of how steroids found their way into sport.
There are plenty of coaches and historians in weightlifting who know all about the sport’s fundamental role in the spread of steroids, which was covered in John Fair’s book Muscletown USA and elsewhere.
But, judging by the social media reaction to Kolliari-Turner’s podcast appearances, many others have found his discussions fascinating - or, as one said, “mindblowing”.
“If you look at review papers and testimonies of people coaching in the 1950s, it’s clear that the spread of anabolic steroids globally is intrinsically linked to weightlifting at Olympic level,” said Kolliari-Turner.
The first paper on testosterone and anabolic steroids was published by two German scientists in 1935, before which “it’s impossible that anybody took any form of anabolic steroid”.
There were clinical trials on men with impotency and on castrated animals a couple of years later in Germany; the animals showed signs of rejuvenation and their muscle mass increased.
Medical research was focused on drugs that could help men with impotency, or patients with muscle-wasting disease, but it became clear that they had non-medical uses too.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s there were reports of West Coast bodybuilders in the United States using testosterone, and progress with synthesised testosterone was clearly being made in the Soviet Union too.
At the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki, the first in which the Soviet Union competed after decades of refusing to have anything to do with the “decadent and bourgeois” sporting festival, the Soviet weightlifters did far better than the Americans had expected.
The US coach Bob Hoffman - former heavyweight lifter, owner and founder of York Barbell equipment manufacturer, publisher of Strength and Health magazine, and widely known as “the father of weightlifting” - told the Associated Press he knew the Soviets were taking “this hormone stuff” to increase their strength.
He was right, as the Soviets confirmed to the US team physician, Dr John Ziegler, at the 1954 International Weightlifting federation (IWF) World Championships in Vienna.
They were using injectable testosterone, which was known to increase muscle mass and had become available commercially after that research in the 1930s.
But testosterone had side-effects because it was both anabolic - creating muscle growth - and androgenic - affecting male sexual characteristics - causing alterations in libido, body-hair growth, liver toxicity, gynecomastia and acne.
 “Ziegler went home and acquired testosterone, but he did not like its side-effects,” Kolliari-Turner said.
In 1958, the first US-manufactured androgen Dianabol (methandrostenolone) was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Dianabol could be taken orally and provided a potential solution to the side-effects noted with injectable testosterone use.
Ziegler popped the pills himself.
As he was a doctor and there was, at the time, no such thing as banned performance-enhancing drugs, he could and did write prescriptions for Dianabol for weightlifters at the York Barbell Club.
A drug that was manufactured by CIBA to help burn victims - the bedridden and frail who had lost muscle mass - was about to change sport forever.
Word got around about “Dbol”, which would become the most popular anabolic steroid in the world. One newspaper report mentioned queues of people outside pharmacies, all waiting to pick up their prescriptions for Dianabol.
At 10 milligrams per day the doses were low compared to what weightlifters would take in the years to come, though results from the Rome 1960 Olympics suggest Soviet lifters were taking more.
The Americans went to Rome with very high hopes, and with the team prescribed Dianabol by Ziegler, though John Fair's research suggests not all of them took it.
The first gold medal went to Charles Vinci of the US; five of the other six were won by Soviet lifters.
“The results led to people thinking the Soviets were ahead not just in space travel but also in pharmaceutical terms,” Kolliari-Turner said.
“Nobody understood the danger of what was going to happen.
“In the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games steroid use was probably isolated only to weightlifters.
“From that one facility, York Barbell, a lot of the weightlifters went on to become strength and conditioning coaches at universities and track and field clubs around the US, and they took their secret with them.
“That is regarded by historians in this field as the pivotal point of how this idea of anabolic steroids as performance-enhancing drugs went from weightlifting in one localised area and was spread nationally in many sports.”
Ben Johnson, Marion Jones and all those baseball players, American football stars, and disqualified Olympians from all over the world have never looked back.
After Dianabol came Turinabol, designed by the East German company Jenapharm in 1965.
For many years athletes could take these two drugs - which still feature prominently on weightlifting’s doping sanctions list - because anabolic steroids were not banned.
Even when the IOC drew up a list of prohibited performance-enhancing drugs in 1967, the year before it first started testing at the Olympic Games, it did not include steroids.
“It was bizarre,” Kolliari-Turner remarked.
“Nobody actually believed they were performance-enhancing because there had never been a formal medical study, no scientific investigation.
“Anabolic steroids were not regarded as damaging to people’s health either - they were seen as useful for people suffering impotence or muscle wastage.
“The American College of Sports Medicine actually said in 1977 that there was no conclusive evidence that anabolic steroids enhanced performance, even though anecdotally everybody knew they did.
“They retracted that statement nine years later.”
Sprinters and throwers could gain an edge with steroids, so track and field athletes were the most frequent users, along with weightlifters.  
“At the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, 68 per cent of surveyed athletes admitted to using steroids in preparation for the Games, but they were not breaking rules.”
The following year, scientific literature on detecting steroid usage in urine samples appeared, but the formal introduction of testing for anabolic steroids by the IOC was delayed until the Montreal 1976 Olympic Games where eight athletes tested positive - seven of them weightlifters.
They came from the US, Poland, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and Sweden.
An eighth lifter, from Romania, tested positive for a stimulant.
Perhaps those weightlifters were out of the loop because the cat-and-mouse game had already begun. Athletes would hear what could be detected and when, so would either change their drug of choice or the time they took it.
“People knew that if they stopped their cycle before the Games, they should be safe from testers, and also knew that there was no test for testosterone so they could take that instead,” Kolliari-Turner added.
In the 1980s there were “serious holes in the system that left considerable room for cheating”.
When the Cologne lab screened urine samples, 20 per cent were over the ratio, which showed that athletes were not taking the oral anabolic steroids any more, they were probably taking injectable testosterone.
Manfred Donike, the German scientist who “brought the fight against doping into popular consciousness,” in the words of IOC President Thomas Bach, tried to persuade the IOC to add testosterone to the list of banned substances in 1982 but they refused because, again, they did not believe it was performance-enhancing.
Once more, the lack of formal academic research gave the advantage to the cheats.
The testers had their moments though.
When athletes heard of testing advances just before the 1983 Pan American Games started in Caracas in Venezuela, 12 members of the US team left the camp and went home.
“They knew they would test positive, and when journalists found out they started digging,” Kolliari-Turner explains.
“There was way more media interest in performance-enhancing drugs after that.”
Then came the tarnished Seoul 1988 Olympic 100 metres final, the BALCO scandal, Lance Armstrong and countless other doping scandals, some involving steroids, others blood doping.
All of which can be traced back, arguably, to the very idea of performance-enhancing drugs coming from a weightlifting gym in an American town with a population of 40,000.
Laws have since been changed in some countries to criminalise steroid production and use, though you can buy them over the counter in Mexico, Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and elsewhere.
Storing samples, using information from whistleblowers, advances in science, more rigorous testing - all of these have made a difference in the past few years.
Kolliari-Turner highlights the testing frequency during Olympic qualifying in weightlifting as a significant advance.
“More in- and out-of-competition testing is a big step forward by the IWF,” he said.
“Fingers crossed for the future.”
There have been significant improvements in policing dopers, but the numbers from that Lausanne study, and the 61 weightlifting retest positives from Beijing 2008 and London 2012 show that 40 years of anti-doping work has not made much difference to athletes’ attitudes.
Steroids are ever more popular in recreational sport too, fuelled by the growth of underground labs that sell their product on the internet. 
“It’s like Breaking Bad,” acknowledges Kolliari-Turner, referencing the American TV series that focuses on crystal meth production.
“Anybody with about $40,000 (£31,000/€36,500) and a good chemistry degree” can try to create a new, undetectable designer steroid, as happened with “The Clear” in the BALCO scandal in the early years of this century.
Labs that want only to manufacture, rather than create, will import raw powder from China - usually derived from soya beans - combine it with oil, pass it through a sterile filter and hey presto, you have steroids.
In the United Kingdom it is illegal to import the products, to manufacture steroids, and to sell them, but it is not heavily policed.
A public health survey in 2018 estimated that up to a million Britons take steroids, mostly for their physique.
Whether recreational users or elite athletes, Kolliari-Turner wants to hear from men who have used steroids in the past for the research project.
Of the 44 who have taken part to date only three competed nationally or above, in untested powerlifting.
“This is the first time-course study where you monitor someone when they cycle off steroids, and only the second time scientists have biopsied someone who took steroids years ago and hasn’t taken them since.
“There has never been a study where you monitor someone through time on a cycle of steroids and take a sample of their muscle [a biopsy] to investigate the effects of the drugs.”
Research on mice suggested that steroid usage would result in a “muscle memory” benefit but now Pitsiladis, Kolliari-Turner and the rest of the Brighton and Rome team[AK1] hope to find out if the same can be proven for humans.
“The way muscles grow is unique - they have many nuclei inside one cell, and by volume they’re the largest cells in the human body,” Kolliari-Turner explained.
“To support them they have myonuclei, which are the structural units responsible for making proteins inside the muscle fibre.”
The number of myonuclei increases with resistance training, and also when anabolic steroids are taken.
When users stop taking steroids, or training, or both, muscle mass is reduced but the myonuclei are retained.
“The idea is, if you take steroids, they cause myonuclei accumulation.
“If myonuclei are permanent, you potentially retain benefit from taking steroids.”
In the Swedish research, when mice that had been exposed to testosterone were taken off for three months - 12 per cent of a mouse’s lifespan - and returned to a resistance-training stimulus, they had twenty per cent larger muscle fibres than the natural mice at the end of the training period.
The conclusion was that myonuclei accumulated from anabolic steroid usage are retained, and that results in an enhanced training effect in the future.
Similar findings in humans might mean that anybody who took steroids would have a potential benefit that lasted for many years.
“There has been only one other study on past steroid usage in humans and that was a PhD thesis.
“The data from current users was published, but from past users it was not, though it did show myonuclei levels were higher than for non-users.
“Evidence suggests there is some retained benefit but we need more research and that’s why we are doing this.”
“We are looking to try to find more people [to study] and do some molecular analysis for the first time, in regards to gene expression and epigenetics that has never been done before.”
Given that steroids have been around since the mid-1950s, and that millions of people take them recreationally either legally or illegally, why has there never been any research before?
“Only WADA is interested,” Kolliari-Turner said.
Any past or current steroid users, who are male and aged 20-40 years old, who would like to contact Alex Kolliari-Turner regarding possible participation in the study - travel and overnight accommodation paid from anywhere in Europe - can contact him at [email protected]
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