Is Steroid Use by Non-Athletes Cheating?

Following up on the discussion of whether anabolic steroids are “cheating” in sports, Rick addresses the different issue of whether steroid use is “cheating” outside the context of competitive athletics — within the context of mature adult “gym rats.”

Q: If doping in sports is cheating because it breaks the rules, what about steroid use for the typical gym rat?  

A:  That’s a question people have kicked around on my facebook page (check it out!). My column in [a recent issue of Muscular Development magazine] addressed steroid cheating in sports; this column follows up by focusing instead on steroids outside of sports. Research shows that most mature adult steroid users aren’t like Marion Jones or Mark McGwire. Most don’t compete in organized athletics of any kind. They’re recreational bodybuilders seeking bigger and better looking bodies.

Caveat: I’m not condoning the illegal use of any black market drug, and steroids can have serious health consequences especially in excessive dosages and without medical supervision.  Virtually everyone is rightfully against teen juicing, but that’s also not the issue here. Whether or not you agree that steroids make a person’s body look better also isn’t the point. The sole question here is: Are adult recreational bodybuilders who use steroids “cheaters” or not?

Cheating requires breaking a rule you’re supposed to follow. Most sports have anti-steroid rules, so that’s why using steroids on the sly is cheating.  As for the rest of us, we aren’t bound by sports rules. But we are bound by the social contract codified by our laws, including the federal Controlled Substances Act. There’s no doubt that taking steroids for bodybuilding violates the law.  But does breaking a law equal cheating?  It sometimes can, such as when failing to pay taxes “cheats” the IRS. But smoking marijuana or using heroin is hardly cheating anyone.

To qualify as “cheating” the breaking of the rule has to be for the purpose of gaining an advantage. The misconduct doesn’t have to actually result in an advantage, however. For example, if you copy your neighbor’s answers while taking an exam, you’re cheating even if the answers turn out to be wrong and you fail the exam. That’s why in sports, it’s still cheating even if the steroids you took don’t help you to win.

What “advantage” is sought by the adult recreational bodybuilder?  Steroid users who desire to have a more muscular body than their non-using friends might be seeking an attraction advantage with potential sexual partners on the beach.  But that’s very different from competing in an organized competition or sports league, where winning and performance success are calculated by simple arithmetic. The sprinter who loses out to a steroid user has a valid gripe.  But you’ve got to roll your eyes at the guy who whines about losing out to his more buff buddy in the battle for the boardwalk bikini girl.

Besides, the primary motive of most steroid users isn’t to attract sexual partners anyway. In the largest in-depth survey of adult steroid users ever conducted (online at www.jissn.com/content/4/1/12), attracting sexual partners was not even mentioned among the top 5 motives. Most steroid users just want to be more muscular, stronger, look better, have more confidence, and be leaner – the same goals that motivated all of us to start lifting weights in the first place. And while most of us enjoy getting positive attention from admirers, the basic quest of non-competitive bodybuilders is to improve their physiques in their own eyes.

Okay, but are you cheating yourself by using steroids?  That’s a question that all adult non-competitive bodybuilders must answer for themselves. If you’re using steroids as a substitute for hard training and clean eating, then yes, you are cheating yourself. But if steroids are being used to facilitate even higher levels of training intensity, while it may be illegal or even dangerous how is it cheating?

Finally, if steroid use in this context is cheating, then so are all other artificial forms of cosmetic enhancement (e.g., breast implants, liposuction, nose jobs, facelifts, porcelain laminates, body waxing, artificial tanners, hair extensions, etc.) that arguably make one person look better than another. You might even throw modern laboratory-created supplements like creatine monohydrate and whey protein isolates into that category, too. But most adults involved with these “unnatural” products and procedures don’t think of themselves as cheating … but rather simply making choices to help them look their best.

Rick Collins, JD, CSCS is the lawyer that members of the bodybuilding community and nutritional supplement industry turn to when they need legal help or representation.

[© Rick Collins, 2011. All rights reserved. For informational purposes only, not to be construed as legal or medical advice.]