Mirror Magazine
16th July 2000

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A bitter pill

By Chatura Randeniya

In these days, if you're looking for a synonym for 'life', 'competition' would be it. We compete for the best schools and universities, we compete for the best jobs. On another level, we compete to be noticed, to get attention, especially from the opposite sex, and to get ahead. Some of us find ourselves looking at various alternate forms of improvement. And to many, steroids provide the answer.

'Steroids are part of what are known as 'performance enhancing substances'.

Dr. Geethanjana Mendis, Head of the Institute of Sports Medicine says "steroids are used by prescription in hospitals, but athletes use them to better their performance.

"Anabolic steroids (the most commonly used steroids, and used to increase muscle mass) cut down fat, and boost energy, metabolism and hormone levels, which improve performance" says Mr.D.U.M. Jayatillake, Director of Physical Education at the Peradeniya University. However, most athletes who use them may not know or disregard their consequences and side effects. Body builders, weight lifters, track and field competitors, wrestlers, football players and even gymnasts have been known to take steroids.

Sport is gaining importance daily, but not for the reasons of playing the game. It is now more important as part of the criteria for a resumé. In other words - winning is everything.

"The situation is that to win at competitions, especially in power sports, steroids are a must. Few admit it, but it is the reality," says Mr. Jayatillake. "Steroids are not only for physical athletes. There are even cases of chess-players using substances to increase their brain power" he adds.

They are not exclusive to sportsmen either. "I don't do any competitive sports," says Vajira* (22), but I take supplements before going to the gym. I don't have a good build, so I thought these would help me." Looking good is fast becoming of premium importance and in the world we live in. With the 'quick-result' mentality of most people, the use of steroids and other substances have become the standard.

Steroids and other performance enhancing substances may give you an edge, or maybe not,if everybody else is using them. But one thing is clear - it comes at a terrible price. "The side effects include brain cancer and arthritis. I personally knew an Indian athlete who died of cancer, and know another who is still suffering from it. I also know a Sri Lankan who was impotent by the age of 40. All because of steroids," says Mr. Jayatillake.

"There are distinct long term and short term side effects of using steroids," says Dr. Mendis. "In the short term, users are exposed to infections and diseases, as immunity levels are lowered. In the long run, there is massive wear and tear of the body. Muscles, organs, tendons, etc. are wasted. There is a likelihood of fractured bones due to bone decay as well," he adds.

The side, effects caused by steroids range from acne to increased aggressiveness to temporary sterility. Even irreversible mas-culinisation in girls has been known to happen. But the risks of using steroids are not just purely physical. Some of the social risks include being accused of cheating and breaking the law.

Supplements are nutrients such as protein and vitamins. These, however, unlike steroids, are not banned substances.But even they have their risks. "Supplements may be taken safely, but only with expert advice. But even they have adverse side effects. Any kind of supplement means that the internal organs have extra work and may deteriorate the kidneys, for example," says Mr. Jayatillake.

But these risks are reasonably well known. Despite this, there are young people willing to take the risk. Why?

Jagath*(26), a weight lifter, says, "steroids were introduced to me by a friend. I take them to get a competitive edge." Mostly, it is a case of extreme competitiveness. The fear that they might not make the team or, even if they do, that they won't be able to win because others are using them is a major motivation to take steroids and other enhancers.

Peer pressure also comes high on the list, as taking steroids may be seen as acceptable, or even daring and praiseworthy. Most people feel the urge to conform to a group, and if the group takes steroids or supplements, there is pressure to do so yourself. "Some people I know take them, so why shouldn't I?" asks Arjuna* (19).

Lack of self-confidence also plays an important role. There is the fear and misconception that your appearance or performance won't be as good as it could be, unless you take steroids. For this, people like Charitha* (23), are willing to take the risks. "Sometimes I get cramps and stomach-aches, but I feel it's a small price to pay for the results I'm getting," he says.

Should you ever wander into a gym, you'll notice that the main topic is performance, and it is only a matter of time before artificial enhancers are brought up. The initial information may come from older friends, peers, magazines or even coaches. The facts are usually corrupted each time the story is told and the use of steroids may come out as a good thing to a person down the line. What makes the problem worse is that some steroids are available over the counter here. "Usually they are much cheaper than supplements," says Mr. Jayatillake.

The problem, therefore is clear. But what is the solution? " Education and testing appears to be the solution," says Dr. Mendis. However, no testing facilities exist here. Steps must be taken to educate people about the consequences of steroids and other such substances. This can be implemented at school level. But awareness alone cannot remedy the problem. Our values must change at a fundamental level. Unless we control our narcissistic and competitive natures, then we must resign ourselves to the fact that performance enhancing substances will continue to be used.

But such change cannot be expected overnight, if at all. Researchers in America suggest that finding viable alternatives to steroids may well be worth the effort. If such alternatives exist, youthful steroid users may opt for the less risky alternative, they say.

But the bottom line is that it's up to the individual. Peers and groups may come and go, but you will remain. If you take steroids, there won't be much of you remaining either. Steroids cannot give you confidence. It must come from within you, not without.

The temptation can be great, especially in the competitive world we live in. Who doesn't want to succeed and look good, you may ask. But if suffering and a possible prolonged death is on the other side of the equation, is it worth the risk?

*Names have been changed

The names of steroids are not named in this article as the temptation to try them may be too great for some. The names of supplements are also omitted as their suitability and dosages cannot be generalised.

Doubt destroys dreams

'Neela was very upset', announced Anoja dramatically. 'About what', I asked curiously. 'She had taken in a girl who was working at Ajith's office to stay in her house. When one of her friends had remarked that it might lead to problems Neela had laughed and said that the girl is from a faraway village and more like an 'orphan Nellie' who would not be able to survive in the concrete jungles of Colombo'.

'What has happened now?' I asked her. 'Apparently', said Anoja, 'Ajith would take the girl to office in the morning. Neela did not think it was wrong, after all she and Ajith are almost thirty years married and the girl is young enough to be their daughter. Anyway, soon anonymous letters started coming in, telling Neela that Ajith was late coming to office, suggesting insidiously that perhaps he was taking the girl somewhere else. Neela laughed at the letters first but gradually she started noting little things, which earlier she had not bothered about. During the weekends when she was attending to household work the girl would bring Ajith the newspaper, he would tease her, sometimes they would talk of things that happened in office which Neela was unaware of.

Suddenly Neela was afraid. Was there some truth in those letters that yet continued to come?' 'I suppose she asked Ajith', I said. 'Yes, she did and they had an almighty row. Ajith was furious that she suspected him after all these years of marriage'. 'That is the normal reaction of any man especially if he is innocent, but in a sense by casting doubts, friction arises, and the husband gets touchy and irritable', I said. 'That's true', said Anoja. 'Ajith is like a bear with a sore head and Neela is weepy and anything appears to upset her'. 'I guess the best thing is for her to tell the girl to find another place, before any healing can take place in the marriage. The cause, innocent or otherwise must be removed', I said. 'I think I'll ask her to do so and then perhaps they can patch up their problems', Anoja said.

It won't be that easy I thought. Once suspicions enter into a marriage it takes a long time to build trust on both sides, and sadly enough there are so many people who instead of helping, add fuel to the fire by continuing to send anonymous letters or make snide remarks. Often in society people get a kind of sadistic pleasure in doing this. I guess this is the one time that the couple should shut the world out and talk to each other of their fears and sadness. Each should understand the other regardless of what has been said or done. Anoja promised to come next week. She is anxious to know of how insidiously suspicion and jealousy can destroy a marriage.

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