the sadness of steroid abuse

Monday, August 20, 2012

There is no joy in Mudville again this week, as the once mighty Melky Cabrera admitted using performance enhancing drugs and was suspended from baseball for just 50 games. Caught by a random drug test showing elevated levels of testosterone, Mr. Cabrera confessed to using the drug, but not before posting a fake website that purportedly was the source of a tainted dietary supplement. The suspension cost him reputation, a few million dollars and perhaps the rest of his career, but there are also invisible victims who can never be compensated.

But let’s first address the medicine. Testosterone is an anabolic, androgenic steroid that naturally occurs in the body. The androgen component is the sex hormone part of testosterone and is responsible for secondary male features like hair development, deep voice, libido and fertility. It’s the anabolic part that athletes crave for its performance enhancing capabilities. Testosterone increases muscle mass and strength as well as bone mass and density. The big benefit is that it allows muscles to recover and repair themselves more quickly after a workout and get ready to go for the next training session. There is a dark side to anabolic steroid abuse and its complications are life threatening. They include heart attack, stroke, blood clots, liver cancer and liver failure among others and psychological changes make aggressive behavior the norm.

Catching the drug abuser is always a cat and mouse game. It takes time for the anabolic steroid to be cleared from the body, so tainted athletes try to time their abuse so that they won’t be caught by mandatory testing .They often will not use the drug in season when random testing is a possibility. The most common way to get caught is to have a too high ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone. The body normally makes about the same amount of the two hormones but if the athlete adds testosterone by injection, cream or gel, the testosterone level rises but the epitestosterone stays the same and the ratio increases…a positive test. It can then be confirmed by looking at the number of carbon atoms in the detected testosterone. Normal body testosterone has more 13 carbon atoms than the testosterone made in a pharmacy which has mostly carbon 12. A sophisticated athlete who is doping may test his own testosterone levels and if they are too high, use epitestosterone injections and artificially lower the ratio closer to normal. A diuretic or water pill is a cruder masking agent, causing the athlete’s urine to be more dilute and perhaps lessen the amount of excreted anabolic steroid that can be measured. It makes sense that masking agents are illegal.

But back to the invisible victims. There are 25 players on a major league baseball roster. They fly between cities in private jets, stay in five star hotels and live a catered life that is bestowed upon an elite athlete. Player #26 lives in the minor leagues, rides a bus, stays at a Holiday Inn Express and makes thousands and not millions as he chases his dream to make the bigs. By cheating, Mr. Cabrera stole a spot and a dream from that unknown player. Another example this week occurred hours after the London Olympics ended. The gold medal was stripped from a Belarus shot putter because of a failed drug test. The medal was awarded to a New Zealander, but without the national anthem playing to a crowd of 80,000 and the emotions and tears of joy that are part of tasting victory. That moment was stolen, never to be recovered. And then there is a nameless person in Belarus, who was denied an Olympic experience because her spot on the team was also stolen because of a steroid abuser who sought an unfair advantage.

The final victims are those high school, college and minor league players who fear that by playing clean, they will place themselves at a disadvantage in pursuing their goal. Baseball was slowly emerging from its steroid era when last year’s MVP, Ryan Braun, was cleared of a doping charge because of technical issues. The sport now has Mr. Cabrera to thank for unearthing the demon that is anabolic steroid abuse. There is no joy in Mudville again and it will take more than a 50 game suspension to clear the clouds.

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