U.S. officials say more than one million young Americans have taken performance-enhancing drugs or dangerous supplements. Now coaches and sports officials say a widening problem among elite athletes affects student athletes as well.
As U.S. anti-doping officials launch a new probe of steroid use by track and field athletes, researchers say they are seeing increased use of performance-enhancing drugs among young competitors.
Wayne Wilson, vice president of research at the Amateur Athletic Foundation, says drug use has filtered down to students in their teenaged years and younger.
"Maybe two-thirds of those kids are athletes, and another third are using steroids just to improve personal appearance," he said.
The researcher says performance-enhancing drugs can be found in many gyms and over the Internet.
Competitive athletes have always looked for ways to improve performance, says Terry Todd, who teaches kinesiology at the University of Texas. He says they have tried caffeine, cocaine and alcohol, but before the age of science, many performance-enhancing remedies were not very effective.
"That's right. The eating of bull testicles is not nearly as effective in terms of athletic performance as the use of anabolic steroids or erythropoietin (EPO), which does the same thing for endurance athletes as steroids do for power athletes," he said.
Mr. Todd, a champion weightlifter in the 1960s, once used steroids himself, but today is strongly opposed to performance-enhancing drugs, which he says are harmful.
Anabolic steroids are derived from the male hormone testosterone. They build muscles by altering chemical balances in the body.
Greg Schwab, assistant principal at a high school in Seattle, also used steroids as a college football star and during a stint as a player in the National Football League. He says he was lucky to avoid their harmful side effects.
"There's a whole range of health consequences: hardening of the arteries, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, liver damage, kidney damage, depression, psychic effects - it's a dangerous drug," he said.
As a coach and athletic director, he has used his own story to urge young athletes to avoid the use of drugs, but he says it is difficult. Student athletes face pressure to win, from peers, parents and coaches. A.J. Greene, a basketball player at Santa Monica High School, sees that pressure among her teammates.
"I don't think any coaches or teachers are pressuring kids into taking steroids or anything that is illegal, but I think that pressure from coaches and parents as well is so intense that kids would be driven to use drugs to enhance their performance and just become better," he said.
A.J. says some of her teammates use controversial but legal supplements like creatine, which researchers have linked to kidney and heart problems. Other student athletes use ephedra, a natural substance derived from a Chinese herb. The adrenaline-like substance was a factor in the sudden death in February of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.
U.S. health officials say the use of alcohol, tobacco, and some illegal drugs is declining, but use of performance-enhancing drugs is on the rise. Another student athlete who attended a recent conference in Los Angeles lost a friend to steroid use. The friend used anabolic steroids to increase his body strength, but the drug triggered a deep depression that led to his suicide.
Olympic gold medallist Bruce Jenner finds drug use among young people disturbing. The winner of the Olympic decathlon in 1976, he saw some drug use at that time.
"Sure, there were things around. But at that point, it was only the elite athletes, a few guys that you knew that were maybe in the Olympics that might be involved in some illegal substances," he said. "But what has happened today over the last 27 years since I competed is that it's worked its way down, so now you see in high school and some cases even junior high school, where kids are taking performance-enhancing drugs. And that's just not right."
The U.S. anti-doping agency, which oversees testing for U.S. Olympic sports, recently uncovered a new designer steroid called THG (tetrahydrogestrinone). An undisclosed number of athletes have tested positive for the drug, and agency officials believe its use was intentional, and not the result of contaminated supplements. A widening scandal threatens to bar some competitors from next year's Olympics.
Bruce Jenner believes most Olympic athletes are drug-free, and that aggressive testing is successfully rooting out problems. Coaches and sports officials at the Los Angeles meeting say education of young athletes and systematic testing will curb drug use, but that new designer steroids, which are always being developed, will continue to pose a challenge.