The upcoming bodybuilding championship spurs questions about steroid use
Because of the physical size and superhero-like proportions of its competitors, bodybuilding has long been dogged by the stigma of steroids. According to Kelvin Fountano, founder of the World Bodybuilding and Fitness Association (WBFA) Championships—which returns to the Rio next month—bodybuilding still “has an issue with anabolic performance-enhancing drugs.” But he believes the rift between those who use steroids and those striving for a cleaner, simpler sport is growing, and he considers his own event a “healthy” alternative to the typical competition atmosphere.
Deric Stockton, owner of Core Strength gym in Scotts Valley and winner of the over-40 category at last year’s WBFA Championships, agrees.
“You go to a higher-level show, the guys look cartoonish now,” says Stockton, who began bodybuilding in 1984 (although he’s now more focused on powerlifting). “These guys look like caricatures. It doesn’t even look real, and obviously it’s not healthy.”
According to a 2013 survey by the Center for Disease Control, 4.1 percent of twelfth-graders admitted to using steroids. But significant reporting of the actual steroid use in the U.S. remains hard to come by, perhaps because it’s so hard to monitor—or simply isn’t monitored at all. Of course, due to the legal ramifications (from a hefty fine or one year in prison for possession and up to ten years for trafficking), steroid use is not something users brag about.
Even more concerning is that the long-term physiological effects of anabolic steroids on humans—like testosterone or androstenedione—remain understudied, especially in high doses. Therefore, the bodily impact of long-term use is still unfurling outside of the more commonly known side effects, like softening of breast tissue, and “roid rage”—the aggressive tendencies that sometimes come after heavy steroid use. Unfortunately, many users underestimate the risks that occur later in life, like dramatic hormonal changes, cardiovascular disease—heart attack and stroke—liver tumors and hypertension.
But Fountano, who won on the national level as a member of Team USA Bodybuilding, says that at the WBFA competition, it’s unlikely that contestants have used steroids, because amateur bodybuilders aren’t facing the same pressures professionals do. Not yet, anyway.
Once competitors enter into the big leagues, it’s basically a requirement, Fountano says, although it wasn’t always that way. Steroid use was deregulated during the ’90s, as the industry fragmented into virtually countless bodybuilding organizations—many of which claimed participants didn’t use any enhancements.
Eventually, even these “natural” organizations that began with good intentions developed their own ways of playing the game, Fountano says. These days, promoters often put on “tested” shows, which claim to be entirely drug-free because of urine testing, but the organizers of such shows are nowadays mired just as deeply within the performance-enhancement culture, he says.
“You’ll see administrators leave, find the first dumpster and dump [urine samples],” he explains. From the remaining samples contest organizers will then test the entrants they know will test negative, which as Fountano describes, could be five out of 150.
As for the WBFA, Fountano says he decided against making it a “natural” organization, partly because of the unreliable standards, which really aren’t standards at all. He calls the testing itself expensive—between $150 and $250 dollars for each competitor. And that’s just for the drugs that are currently detectable.
The only way to truly overcome the problem is to educate the young athletes who would be enticed, says Fountano, because, just as with any other drugs, most simply don’t know what they’re dealing with.
“They have no education, they’re not under a doctor’s supervision, and if you sell it to them you’re a dealer,” he says, adding, “A dealer likes to make money, they don’t care about your health, they don’t care if you know what you’re doing, they don’t care if you won a show, they just want another customer.”
In the end, winning makes money, and it’s hard to dissuade athletes from doping when the regulatory bodies are also turning a blind eye, says Fountano.
“It happens in all sports. You see parents of little league players yelling and screaming, and they allow it because they want their kids to turn pro and take care of them. It’s the psychology of sports,” says Fountano. “Our society has put such a high level on entertainment and sports that athletes and entertainers lose it sometimes because they lose a sense of reality.”
Stockton says the main incentive to compete in an amateur competition like the WBFA are still the health benefits and the techniques it teaches, such as neuromuscular connectivity, which basically involves visualizing the muscle you’re exercising. This allows people to use their muscles and nerves more efficiently. “Ultimately you end up with less wear and tear on your joints,” he says.
Stockton, who recently set a national squat record in his age and weight group in San Jose, says that the WBFA event is refreshingly free of the typical cutthroat, steroid-infused climate: “We’re trying to take a healthy approach with this whole thing and share that with folks.”
Info: $20, 5:30 p.m., Sep. 6, Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. PHOTO: ZACH TAYLOR