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Never Enough: Steroids in Sports: Part 1
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Never Enough: Steroids in Sports: Part 1 - 10-09-2005, 08:23 PM

- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Never Enough / Steroids in Sports: Experiment turns epidemic
46 years after steroids were injected into sports, there is a frenzy to get rid of them. First in a series.
Sunday, October 02, 2005

By Robert Dvorchak, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

YORK, Pa. -- A few months removed from pumping iron in a barn with his buddies, Bill March was referred by his mentors at the York Barbell Club to the team doctor for the U.S. weight-lifting team.

The physician -- the late John Bosley Ziegler -- fancied himself as a researcher who was on a quest to merge science and sports. He introduced March to a new piece of workout equipment. He also gave March a packet of experimental blue pills.

Doreena Balestreire
Weightlifter Bill March was one of the first athletes to take anabolic steroids in 1959.

About this series
This is the first of a four-part series on the history of steroids and how they spread throughout athletics.
TODAY: An experiment in York, Pa., plants the seed.

TOMORROW: A Pittsburgh attorney put the government on trial to get his client acquitted of steroids charges.

TUESDAY: Ran*** drug testing is part of life for today's NFL players.

WEDNESDAY: The ethics of steroids use will continue to perplex society as researchers explore its age-defying benefits.

Your Views
Join the series' author, Robert Dvorchak, for an online discussion about the issues raised in his reports. The session is scheduled from noon to 1 p.m., Friday, Oct. 7. Click here to log-in as early as 11:30 a.m. that day to post your questions ahead of the session.

"I thought it was just another vitamin," March, 69, said in a recent interview at his home in rural York County. "I didn't know what they were. He needed a guinea pig. I was gung-ho at the time and said sure. I would have done anything they told me. I just wanted a better physique."

The pills contained the anabolic steroid methandrostenolone, a biochemically engineered derivative of the sex hormone testosterone that was packaged under the brand name Dianabol.

March's introduction to steroids came in the waning months of 1959, the documented dawn of the Age of Steroids in American sports.

Forty-six years later, "the juice," as it is called, is classified as a controlled substance by the government and as a tool of cheaters in the sports world. Like the villagers in a '50s horror movie brandishing torches and pitchforks, policy-makers are all in a frenzy trying to kill it. Their main weapon, however, is a urine test that detects molecules of artificial manliness.

The word hormone comes from the Greek and means to excite or arouse. And what could stir things up more than a secret experiment involving unnatural doses of testosterone? Produced in the testicles in males, testosterone not only has the power to turn a boy into a man, but it also sends messages to those primal areas in the brain that trigger the sex drive.

The consequences of feeding a sex hormone as a muscle-builder to iron-willed competitive athletes were unforeseen, but even before Viagra pitchman Rafael Palmeiro tested positive this summer, little was left to deny.

Sports have been played by men and women on artificial testosterone for more than four decades. Every legitimate athletic achievement has been shadowed by a parallel universe of counterfeit Olympic gold, testosterone touchdowns and hormonal home runs.

But a re-examination of the essence of competition among elite athletes is only the half of it. Steroids now thrive on a black market that reaches into high schools, junior highs and local gyms. Advances in technology mean they can be swallowed, injected, inhaled or ingested via creams, gels, patches or droplets under the tongue, and they're engineered to avoid detection.

If abused, steroids can cause severe health consequences, especially in women and adolescents. But they also have some legitimate medical uses and hold the promise, through tightly regulated hormone replacement, of renewed vitality in aging Baby Boomers.

"I think Ziegler was groping around in the dark. In a sense, we're still like Ziegler, groping around in the dark about this stuff," said John Fair, a weight lifter and professor of history at Georgia College and State University, a chronicler of the birth of steroids and author of "Muscletown USA."

"It was an age of innocence. The feeling at the time was, if it's there and it's going to work, why not try it? Nobody could believe you could get muscles from a pill. Now we live in a pill-popping age," he added.

There could hardly be a more benign setting for the birthplace of steroids than York, a south central Pennsylvania town that briefly served as the nation's capital during the Revolutionary War when a fledgling democracy fled the advance of the British on Philadelphia.

But the mostly rural area is no stranger to things that have spun out of control. The Gettysburg battlefield that redefined a nation divided by Civil War is a 30-minute drive to the southwest, and the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor that exposed the illusion of fail-safe atomic technology is a short drive to the north.

From the time of the original Olympics in ancient Greece, athletes have sought out substances to give them an edge in their quest for personal glory. But artificial hormones?

"In all of sports, there is really nothing quite like steroids," Fair said. "Nothing is clean. Nobody is truthful about this. They flourish in the underground, like the porn or cocaine industries. There's so much going on that people hardly know about."

Cold War competition
More than a century before Jose Canseco said he and his teammates were shooting up steroids in clubhouse bathrooms, history's first juicer was a 72-year-old French physiologist who tinkered with the testes.

In 1889, Charles-Eduoard Brown-Sequard injected himself with a concoction made from the mashed testicles of dogs and guinea pigs. The elixir, he reported, made him feel stronger and more alert, relieved his constipation and boosted the arc of his urine.

Scientists in Nazi Germany first isolated testosterone in the 1930s by distilling 15,000 liters of urine collected from German police officers. They later synthesized it in the lab. In early animal tests, injections of testosterone restored vitality in castrated roosters.

Following World War II, the Soviet Union applied the German science to its Olympic athletes -- both male and female -- as part of Joseph Stalin's crusade to prove communist superiority through bigger rockets, bigger warheads and bigger muscles.

And that's where John Ziegler came in, seeking a counter-weapon in a Cold War competition against an adversary that no longer exists.

As the team doctor for U.S. weight lifters, Ziegler discovered at the 1954 World Games in Vienna that the Soviets were using testosterone to boost strength. But in addition to lifting incredible amounts of weights, the Soviet athletes also exhibited the hormone's masculinizing side effects, such as testicles that were shrunken and prostates that were so enlarged the athletes had to be catheterized in order to urinate.

Ask any male who has survived puberty, the time in life when hormones rage, about the multiple personalities of testosterone. While it spurs growth in muscle and bones, it also results in such things as facial and body hair, acne and a cracking then a deepening of the voice. It also affects moods and thoughts.

Ziegler, whose father had developed the salt tablet, came from a line of physicians dating back to the Civil War. A Marine officer who had been shot up at Tarawa in World War II, Ziegler lifted weights as part of his rehabilitation. That led to his relationship with York Barbell.

To beat the Russians at their own game, Ziegler found an ally in Ciba Pharmaceuticals of Summit, N.J., which provided him with lab-made testosterone as well as literature on German research.

Testosterone -- a four-ringed molecule made up of atoms of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen -- was tweaked to reduce unwanted effects, such as a ballooning prostate, and to increase its ability to build muscle.

The result was Dianabol, a pill form that reduced but never quite eliminated testosterone's side effects.

From the start, it had a cover story. While Ziegler tried it as a way to build muscle, Ciba sold it on the commercial market as a prescription drug to speed recovery from surgery and as a remedy for burned skin and brittle bones.

After trying the stuff on himself, Ziegler sought athletes at York Barbell, which was then the center of the universe for U.S. lifters. The company was founded by ex-Pittsburgher Bob Hoffman, whose legacy as the father of world weightlifting is noted on a state historical marker. That plaque neglects to mention steroids.

The secret weapon
A four-sport athlete, Bill March stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 156 pounds when he graduated from Dallastown (York County) High School in 1958. He lifted weights as a hobby, starting with cinder blocks attached to a metal bar.

"Sports was the only thing that kept me off the streets," March said.

March participated in a weightlifting demonstration one night in 1959 at halftime of a benefit basketball game featuring players from the Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Colts. He met Hoffman that night, and an invitation followed to work out at what was then the premier gym in America.

A short time later, March was sent to see Ziegler. He'd drive 110 miles to Ziegler's office in Olney, Md., for workouts on a power rack, which required a maximum exertion of pulling, pressing and doing deep knee bends against a stationary bar. The three movements required full effort for 12 seconds. After essentially 36 seconds of work, he'd drive 110 miles on country roads back to Pennsylvania.

Then came Dianabol, with nary a law or regulation governing its use.

"We were experimenting," March said. "He wondered that if it helped burn patients grow skin and helped sick people to recover, what would it do for a healthy person? I never gave it any thought. You're young. You're invincible. It was just another supplement. "

The first contest he entered, March failed to reach the finals. But by the end of 1960, after a year of Dianabol-fueled workouts, he out-lifted the reigning Olympic silver medalist in the 198-pound weight class.

"It works," March said flatly.

Actually, the pill did not spurt muscles the way spinach did for Popeye. In the complex chemistry of the body, testosterone sends messages to muscle cells. In combination with a high protein diet and obsessive workouts, and if taken for a cycle of six weeks, Dianabol acted like a high-powered amino acid. In addition, it cut down the time March needed to recover from workouts, which meant he could lift more often and post more gains.

"It not only builds muscle, it does give you a euphoric feeling," March said.

Ziegler had strict instructions: no more than 15 milligrams of Dianabol per day (an adult male produces about seven milligrams per day), six weeks of use followed by five weeks of abstinence, and regular medical checkups that included a liver test every four months.

There was no shortage of volunteers seeking to become bigger, faster and stronger. One was Dick Smith, who was March's personal trainer. Ziegler agreed to supply him with Dianabol as long as doctor's orders were followed.

"Doc wanted to do it right. He was conducting a clinical test," Smith said. "I went from 175 [pounds] to 195 in 11 months, and that was enough for me."

In 1960, Ziegler recruited Lou Riecke, a competitive lifter from New Orleans. After visiting the doctor, Riecke began receiving his test-tube testosterone through the mail. He was told it would help him get the full nutritional value out of his food.

"I thought they were vitamins. I had no idea what they were," Riecke said in a telephone interview. "Nobody knew about it."

Like a couple of astronauts training for the New Frontier of space, March and Riecke were on the cutting edge of anabolic training.

By 1963, March set a world record in the standing bench press with a lift of 354 pounds. At the Pan American games that year, he won a gold medal along with Riecke, who set a world record of his own at 325 pounds in the snatch.

March and Riecke both qualified for the 1964 U.S. Olympic team. Injury prevented Riecke from competing. March matched the lifts of Poland's Ireneusz Palinsky, but he was denied the bronze medal because he weighed more than his competitor.

"We knew the Russians were on something. All the communist bloc countries were doing it," March said. "We didn't know what caused them to gain so much weight and be so far ahead. We heard that they were taking shots of adrenaline backstage, too."

Not only was a he a formidable lifter who could dunk a basketball, March had an eye-catching physique. Although he disliked posing, March won the title of Mr. Universe in 1965 in a competition held in Iran.

That same year, he tried out with Don Shula's Baltimore Colts but failed to make the team. He was also offered a contract with the San Diego Chargers, but he didn't want to move to California.

Later in his nine-year weightlifting career, March also took injections of a different type of steroid -- Deca-Durabolin. One shot would be the equivalent of a week's worth of pills.

"I never gave it any thought. I knew I was getting bigger and stronger. It was just another supplement," said March, who at his last competition weighed 242 pounds and had a 54-inch chest with a 32-inch waist.

March also took amphetamine, commonly known as speed because it stimulates the central nervous system. He may have been one of the first American athletes to participate in his sport on synthetic adrenaline and high testosterone, but he wasn't the last.

Ziegler wasn't just experimenting with steroids, new equipment and isometrics. He also dabbled in hypnosis and biorhythms as training tools for athletes. But over time, Dianabol proved to be the secret.

The results were so spectacular that by 1965, Ziegler wrote a letter to Hoffman that said: "It is very, very possible that special training techniques and other devices along with greater physiological knowledge may enable man to achieve physical performances now considered SUPERHUMAN!"

Out of control
In the competitive world of athletics, secrets have a short shelflife. The two questions most frequently asked around the gym were: What is Bill March taking and where can it be obtained?

"It grew from a few people and spread into other sports," March said. "Everybody used it to some extent. All the guys on the [weightlifting] team took Dianabol. It helped all of them. Anybody connected with the Barbell knew what was going on."

As the Dianabol experiment grew, Ziegler would phone in prescriptions to Schultz's Drug Store, which at the time was right around the corner from York Barbell's original location.

The doctor's orders were for 5 milligrams a day for lightweights, 10 milligrams a day for middleweights and 15 milligrams a day for heavyweights, with periodic medical checkups.

While March adhered to the program, he said others started forging Ziegler's name on prescriptions to get more pills, and other doctors were sought to write prescriptions to get out from under Ziegler's control.

"One thing led to another," March said. "Some people figured if one pill helped, what would five do for you? They wanted faster results. Then they started selling it on the side. I'm not going to name names, but I knew what was going on. Guys got caught with their hand in the cookie jar."

Added Smith: "For some guys, it's never enough. If a little is good, a whole lot must be better. It started getting out of hand."

And there it was, like a single neutron splitting a uranium atom, creating a burst of energy and radioactive residue while freeing more neutrons to split more atoms. Steroids use became a chain reaction without control rods, both among elite athletes and everyday lifters getting it on an embryonic black market.

Like radiation, steroid use was invisible at first, and the side effects of megadoses were poorly understood.

Ziegler's experiment had gone haywire.

"It got out of control real quick," Fair said. "The genie was out of the bottle."

At one point, Ziegler noted that some lifters were swallowing steroids like jelly beans. In his examinations, he saw enlarged prostates and shrunken testicles because, if the male body senses it has too much testosterone, it shuts down natural production and the testicles shrivel.

"He said, 'What is it with these simple-minded [idiots]? If that's what they're going to do, I'll write no more prescriptions.' And as far as I know, he didn't," Smith said.

It was too late to stop the outbreak, however.

Some lifters in Texas who knew Riecke trekked to York in 1962 because they weren't getting satisfactory results from their workouts. When they returned to Austin, they had bottles of Dianabol.

"This is the secret," they told Terry Todd, a champion power lifter who wrote about the episode in a 1983 article in Sports Illustrated.

There was no going back.

As early as 1960, some U.S. lifters used Dianabol during the Olympics, and they were commonplace in the Tokyo Games of 1964.

Dianabol was placed in cereal bowls on the training table of the 1963 San Diego Chargers by the late Alvin Roy, a strength coach who learned Ziegler's steroid secrets while he was the trainer of the U.S. weightlifting team.

President John F. Kennedy, who advocated a program of vim, vigor and vitality for all Americans, was taking testosterone as part of his long list of daily medications.

By 1969, the magazine of The Athletic Congress, now known as USA Track and Field, called Dianabol the "breakfast of champions."

A doctor's legacy
So what happened to the pioneers?

March works for a car dealership and lives in rural York County with his second wife and two Great Danes. He was the model for the lifter who adorns the roof of the new York Barbell Co. off Interstate 83 south of Harrisburg.

Riecke still competes in the Louisiana Senior Olympic Games and was a medalist in the sprint events in the 75-79 age category in 2004. He said he stopped taking steroids when he retired from competition in 1964, then later became the first strength coach of the Steelers in 1970. In 2003, he was inducted into the Hall of the Fame of the USA Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association, which condemns steroid use as cheating.

Smith, 80, is a part-time trainer at a gym in the York area and gives tours of York Barbell's museum. He was a pallbearer at Ziegler's funeral in 1985.

Ziegler, the father of Dianabol, has been demonized for his experiment and compared to Dr. Frankenstein for unleashing a monstrous creation. But March and Smith, who see old teammates once a year at a strong man reunion in New Jersey, have a different view.

"It bothers me that people talk about him and don't know what they're talking about," Smith said.

"I've read things and saw things on TV that try to make Ziegler out to be a villain," March said. "Yes, he put me on those pills. But he was a very caring man. He would never do anything to hurt any of us.

"They checked me every week. I didn't stray from supervision. I never had a problem with it. I don't know of anybody on our team that had a problem. I never heard of any side effects. We didn't overdo it. We didn't abuse it," he added.

As for Ziegler, he wrote a bold print warning about his creation in a 1967 issue of Strength & Health magazine that said: "Androgenic anabolic steroids ... are categorically condemned for the athlete."

In his Sports Illustrated article in 1983, Terry Todd quoted Ziegler as saying: "I decided to try the steroids and the isometric contractions on a few of the top U.S. lifters, but I wish to God now I'd never done it. I'd like to go back and take that whole chapter out of my life."

Clearly, he was flummoxed that his work went out of control when lifters began self-experimenting.

"What he regretted most of all was that he didn't become a world famous scientist or a household name. He's way back in the shadows," said Fair. "He was definitely looking for an edge to beat the Russians. I don't think he was driven by money. It wasn't anything diabolical. I think it was ego."

But March never heard a word of regret from his doctor.

"Ziegler wishes he would have never invented it? That's an outright lie. He never said that," March said.

Capping the bottle
Over time, the molecular presence of artificial testosterone grudgingly revealed itself.

The International Olympic Committee banned steroids and began testing at the 1976 Montreal Games, a procedure now handled by the World Anti-Doping Association. The National Football League banned steroids in 1983, and testing now includes every player in every NFL camp with ran*** tests year round. The NCAA followed with its own ban in 1986. More than a decade after Congress classified steroids as a controlled substance, Major League Baseball finally began testing in 2002 but did not discipline users until this year.

Does Bill March think he cheated by what is now considered manliness from a pill, even if it was given to him by a doctor, perfected by a pharmacy and approved for commercial use by the Food and Drug Administration?

"I think about that now. I didn't at the time. Back then, it was just another training tool," March said.

He did, however, have a heart-to-heart talk with his four children when steroids became publicized. All four of them had careers in uniform: one son served in the Air Force, a son and a daughter took the Marine Corps oath, and another daughter serves as a police officer.

"I don't know if I deserve everything I accomplished," March told them after some introspection.

They reassured him that there were no policies or laws about steroids in the years that he took them, so there was nothing to be ashamed of.

But March never advocated steroid use by his children or anyone else.

"I would have never started them on anything like that. They were kids. I wouldn't recommend it to anybody. I was out on my own, trying to find my way," March said.

"Adults can make their own choices. But steroids should be kept away from kids. It should never show up in junior high school," he added. "As far as Barry Bonds hitting home runs, if the other guys don't like it, they should either take it or shut up. You still have to hit the ball."

John Fair is among those who wish steroids had never seeped into the sports world.

"Athletic competition is a test of the human spirit, the human mind, the human body. It's not a test of the quality of drugs you take." Fair said.

"To me, sports is a noble endeavor, something that improves the body, enhances health and gives you a sense of well-being. Steroids are ruining health and corrupting sports. We see it coming back on baseball. Are today's players worthy champions? Poor Babe Ruth. Poor Henry Aaron. Poor Roger Maris," he added.

But stoppering up the medicine bottle after steroids had such a head start on regulation will be difficult, if not impossible.

"It's a societal issue. It's built into the culture," Fair said. "Really, the problem is within us."

(Robert Dvorchak can be reached at [email protected] or 412-263-1959. Angelika Kane, head librarian, and research assistants in the Post-Gazette library also contributed to this report.)
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