Ripped and legal

Paul Bienaimé and Rohit Ramkumar

Last month, the sports world watched in awe as cancer survivor and seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong discontinued his fight against steroid allegations made by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA). After an almost year-long struggle, Armstrong quit, effectively admitting his guilt in the view of the USADA. However, on his website, Armstrong maintains that his reason for stopping the fight was that he did not want it to drag on any longer. He was subsequently banned from all cycling events for life by the USADA.

Many fans of Armstrong were hurt by his punishment, but still showed support. Others shunned Armstrong solely due to what they perceived as an admission of guilt. As a universal figure, Armstrong was, in the minds of many, an inspiration. However, in light of the controversy surrounding Armstrong, the consequences of his actions have been felt and the hotly debated topic of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), has been renewed.

Athletes all over the world dream to make an impact in their sports the way Lance Armstrong did. However, the competition to become the cream of the crop or most highly sought-after player is intensifying. As the years go by, kids have started playing sports at younger and younger ages, and are pressured by trainers, parents, coaches and teammates to perform at increasingly higher levels. Therefore, those who struggle to become better, stronger or faster than their peers may face the temptation to begin experimenting with PEDs.

The use of steroids has been well-documented in cycling, as well as in other professional sports, but the use of these drugs has trickled down to the college level and, most alarmingly, the high school level. Numerous cases in states like Texas and Louisiana have been reported and high school usage is spreading. According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, five to 12 percent of high school males and one percent of females in the United States, will use anabolic steroids by the time they are seniors.

The situation involving Lance Armstrong brings up questions as to whether the impact of professional athletes using steroids has spread to places like Palo Alto High School. However, The Viking’s investigation uncovered no evidence of steroid use in Paly’s athletic community; instead The Viking discovered the complete opposite. The real question then became clear: Why not?

According to Paly track coach and former bodybuilder Jason Fung, the temptation to take steroids in high school does exist.

“There’s a lot of advertising that caters to looking better, getting stronger and being above everybody else in the sport,” Fung said.  “I think kids are very adventurous and they want to see what it does.”

Dave, a Paly athlete speaking anonymously, agreed that the decision to use steroids would be easy if he had no risk of getting caught.

“I would take [steroids],” he said. “They’re an all around benefit to your game and your strength.”

However, despite the appeal that exists for some, Paly athletes that were interviewed for the story emphatically condemned the use of steroids.

Ben Cook (‘13), who is a wrestler on the varsity team in the winter and lifts in the weight room daily, has a simple explanation as to why he does not use steroids.

“In the long run, it’s cheating yourself,” Cook said.

Not all high school athletes nationwide agree with Cook, however, and upon experimentation, those who want to play in college and at the highest levels may go above and beyond what is safe and legal to reach their goals.

“If it means a full ride scholarship to a Division I school, kids will say ‘sure, why not?’ They’ve got nothing to lose,” Fung said.

Some athletes, regardless of whether they use steroids or not, do not consider failure an option. Some who do not initially use these drugs eventually experiment with them because they are afraid to fail, and some who are already using take higher doses to ensure that they have a better chance of succeeding. The pressures to succeed can be amplified by the peer pressure that often takes place within teams.

Lance Williams is the co-writer of the critically acclaimed book Game of Shadows, which investigates the steroid scandal involving Barry Bonds, who played for the San Francisco Giants and owns the Major League Baseball home run record. He believes that this pressure to compete with peers can be the tipping point for an athlete to experiment with steroids.

“Young people exposed, especially young athletes, they are very competitive, they want to make the team or be the star,” Williams said. “Kids think [steroids will] help and they discount the consequences.”

Dave echoed a similar sentiment.

“[If my teammates were using steroids] I would do the same, because I wouldn’t want to get passed up by the other guys,” Dave said. “I’d feel inclined to keep up and keep my starting spot.”

In 2004, President George W. Bush put the issue on the map by calling for additional funding to test for illegal PEDs in high school students. However, only the states of Texas, Illinois and New Jersey still have drug testing programs in high schools. Even in these states, funding for the expensive tests has fallen through, resulting in a decrease in testing.

Williams believes that this lack of efficient testing results in stronger incentives for athletes to juice.

“A kid dedicated to using steroids could use his steroids and play sports in Texas and not get caught,” Williams said.

As a result of the lack of testing and growth in popularity, steroids have become more available for athletes across the country.

In 2005, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) became the first high school governing body in the United States to embrace policies regarding the use of steroids. The CIF handbook generally states that schools must adopt policies regarding the use and abuse of steroids and require an agreement from athletes stating that they will not use steroids without a prescription from a licensed physician.

The Paly handbook does not outline any guidelines for the use of steroids on campus or in the athletic program, but a sign in the weight room outlines the hazards of steroid use. It reads:


“Warning:  Use of steroids to increase strength or growth can cause
serious health problems. Steroids can keep teenagers from growing to
their full height; they can also cause heart disease, stroke, and
damaged liver function. Men and women using steroids may develop
fertility problems, personality changes, and acne. Men can also
experience premature balding and development of breast tissue. These
health hazards are in addition to the civil and criminal penalties
for unauthorized sale, use, or exchange of anabolic steroids.”


According to Assistant Principal Kathy Laurence, Paly coaches must also be knowledgeable on the topic of PEDs.

“They do a training to be coaches in the state of California, and part of their education covers steroid use,” Laurence said.

The Paly weight room houses a group of individuals who believe that hard work and perseverance are the only ways to achieve goals. Rather than resort to steroids or illegal supplements to take a shortcut to success, these individuals can be found every single day doing it the fair way. Cook is firm in his belief that steroids are the wrong way to go.

“I don’t think thats the right kind of road to go down,” Cook said. “Being dependent on one of those things is so short term that the only outcome that it could be is something superficial and maybe for some sort of image or to somewhat boost your ego.”

Cook cites character as a leading force as to why he has not even considered using PEDs.

“I guess it’s just about your character in general,” Cook said. “I think that’s a whole different thing. I’ve never considered that because it’s kind of strange.”

Cook believes that the Paly community as a whole has been influential in curbing the use of these drugs among athletes.

“I think Paly does a really good job of influencing hard work and showing kids that there is really this higher benchmark level that they can achieve,” he said.

Rather than fall prey to shortcuts and illegal activities, the Paly athletic community as a whole has brought respect and success to the school and justified its athletic achievements not through shortcuts, but through hard work and determination. Despite the widespread steroid use in professional sports, athletes at Paly have remained free from the influence of these harmful drugs. Varsity water polo player Scott Powell (‘14), who recently moved from Washington D.C. to Palo Alto, believes that the Paly athletes are clean.

“At Paly I get a different vibe,” Powell said. “I feel my team and overall the athletes here have more integrity than that.”