“World records are being smashed by men who have been taking anabolic hormones [steroids]. Some athletes see them as a new secret weapon. . . . It’s the hottest–and quietest–argument in sports today.” A 2004 editorial about Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, and breaking baseball’s cherished records with the help of a little juice, right? Wrong! This opening paragraph appeared in the April 1967 issue of True magazine. That was 37 years ago. The sport wasn’t baseball, it was track and field.
In April 1967, I had just turned 17. Ron Semkiw, who would go on to be a three-time Pennsylvania state champion (1970-72), national champion, and the junior college record holder in the shot put, was just 13. We lived on the same street and trained together. I taught him the basics of shot putting, throwing the discus, and weight lifting. My older brother had sent me the True magazine article with this written comment: “Gary, read this article. This is why [Randy] Matson and the rest are so good. They cheat a little. They take short cuts, and you’re doing it the hard way. Good luck, and break your own record again.”
Randy Matson was the world record holder in the shot put at the time (70' 7"). I was training hard to break the national high school record of 69' 6" (12 pounds) set by Karl Salb of Arkansas. The record was eventually broken by Sam Walker during my senior year. I got close, but not close enough. For a shot putter, I was small, being a fraction of an inch over 6 feet, and weighing about 200 pounds. My senior year, I weighed around 215 pounds. I lifted weights six days a week and ate enormous amounts of food. I can remember when I was 15 waking up one morning weighing 178 pounds and going to bed weighing more than 190 pounds. That’s the way it was done before steroids. Shot putting requires height, weight, and strength.
Ron Semkiw was a tad under six feet, but by his senior year he weighed around 230 pounds. His strength was legendary. He bench pressed 430 pounds as a high school senior. To anyone who knows anything about weight lifting, this is an extraordinary weight for anyone at any age. Most professional football players can’t bench press 430 pounds. Ron did it while still in high school in a makeshift gym in his cramped basement. I spoke with Ron the other day. He is 50 years old, but not long ago squatted with 600 pounds.
We did all of this without steroids. Would I have taken steroids if the opportunity had presented itself? I really don’t know. Looking back over what might have been, if I had taken steroids and had broken the record, it would not mean much to me today. It would have been like throwing a shot that was a few ounces light. Did the guys I competed against at the national high level take steroids? I don’t think so. They were taller and bigger than I was. Times have changed. You need an edge.
What do we say to a pole vaulter like Bob Richards who never had access to a fiberglass pole, or the sprinter who didn’t have the advantage of a synthetic track, feather-light running shoes, or starting blocks? High jumpers flop instead of roll. They couldn’t flop when the pits were filled with sawdust. They had to land on their feet. The same was true of pole vaulters. These innovations have made track and field more interesting but less pure. High-level training facilities, never available to me when I was growing up, offer a decided advantage to modern athletes.
Given all the protestations by the sporting establishment, I don’t know what the fuss is all about regarding steroids. The prevailing ethic today is that a person can do what he wants with his own body as long as what he does does not hurt anyone else. If a teenage girl can kill her preborn baby under the cover of constitutional law, then what’s so immoral about athletes packing on the muscle by using steroids? At least the only person who might get hurt is the athlete taking the juice. We pass out needles to junkies and condoms to kids, so why not level the playing field and make steroids available to everyone who wants them.
If we are going to rid sports of steroids, something sport purists have been trying to do since the mid-1960s, it’s going to take more than banning the stuff. Someone will always find a way to make steroid use undetectable. But at the heart of it all is a moral worldview that reaches no higher than the individual, “every man doing what is right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6).