Menus Subscribe Search

But It's Just a Game

steroids

(Photo: Nickola_Che/Shutterstock)

Why Are Synthetic Hormones Off-Limits in Sports?

• March 03, 2014 • 9:00 AM

(Photo: Nickola_Che/Shutterstock)

Our bodies naturally create hundreds of hormones that are key to determining our athletic abilities. But the introduction of unnatural hormones raises important questions about how we define sex and gender.

Whether it is gays in the Olympics, or anabolic steroids and A-Rod, our assessment of athletics is dramatically colored by our beliefs about sex, gender identity, and the role steroid hormones play in that mix. In fact, steroids are the epicenter of two distinct controversies shaking the world of elite sports:

  • Should intersex women who have naturally elevated levels of steroids called androgens be eligible to compete as women?
  • Should athletes, male or female, be able to administer chemically modified androgens (anabolic steroids) to improve athletic performance?

Naturally or by needle, some argue that people with elevated levels of anabolic steroids, should not compete. If we agree one’s God-given hormone environment should not disqualify a female from participating in women’s sports, why don’t we sanction the use of performance-enhancing steroids?

We make hundreds of hormones naturally in our bodies or synthetically in a lab. For example, growth hormones regulate size, and hormones like insulin regulate energy use. These hormones are key players in athletic performance, and these two, as well as many others, could be manipulated to gain a competitive advantage. Despite the large number of hormones that play critical roles in athletic performance, we would yawn if we found out an athlete used a peptide hormone like melatonin, but get downright aroused when they use steroid hormones.

Most of us were brought up to think in in simple dichotomies: male female, straight gay. But evolution rides on the back of diversity, and nature is always more complex than simple binary choices.

A Google search for cortisol (a glucocorticoid) and sports performance scores a paltry 164,000 hits, while testosterone (an androgen) tops out at more than 4.8 million. It is not just anabolic steroids that are taken illicitly through a pill or a syringe that cause conniptions; we have a hard time dealing with individuals where nature, through genetic mutations, has given them a similar hormonal boost. Our concerns about such innate mutations, however, are strangely limited to cases that impact not only performance but also traits that give rise to our sense of sex and gender.

Few questioned that Yao Ming, despite his extraordinary height, should have been allowed to play basketball in the NBA or that Usain Bolt, despite his otherworldly speed, should be allowed to run track. Does Ming have mutations in the gene for growth hormone that confers exceptional height? Does Bolt possess insulin receptors that allow his muscles to make better use of energy? We don’t know, nor should we: They are people blessed with exceptional physical traits that allow them to excel at their chosen sports. However, the sports world was up in arms over the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) deliberations over whether South African runner Caster Semenya should have been allowed to compete in track and field as a woman in 2012. Unlike Ming or Bolt, Semenya’s biology (she has a mutation in the receptor for androgens) raises thorny questions because her particular genetics are also at the heart of how we define sex and gender.

Most of us were brought up to think in in simple dichotomies: male female, straight gay. But evolution rides on the back of diversity, and nature is always more complex than simple binary choices. Sex, a biological term, is confusing enough (just ask any 16-year-old), but gender is a social construct comprising not only our genetic sex (the complement of x and y chromosomes), gonadal sex (whether we have testes or ovaries), and phenotypic or body sex (our secondary sex characteristics such as breasts and facial hair), but also our brain or behavioral sex, which includes both gender identity (whether one thinks of oneself as male/female) and sexual orientation (attraction). The component parts don’t always neatly fit.

Intersex individuals like Semenya are born with a y chromosome, but a change in the genetic code for their androgen receptors means their bodies do not respond well to these steroids and they do not fully develop the external appearance we typically associate with men. As important, steroids organize brain development, especially in the period right around birth and again at adolescence, in ways that may shape our gender identity. Thus, individuals with this Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS), despite having a y chromosome and levels of androgens often higher than in women with two x chromosomes, have feminized brains. They therefore not only look like women but also behave like women and think of themselves as women. Moreover, as they grow up, society treats them like women, thereby reinforcing this female gender identity. AIS is not all that rare (estimates are one in 20,000), but the syndrome doesn’t often surface as a societal problem. Not so at the Olympics, where, unlike genetic differences that give rise to other exceptional physiological traits, the performance advantage conferred by androgens in AIS women also crosses that binary boundary we conventionally have used to separate men (xy chromosome/high androgens) versus women (xx chromosomes/lower levels of androgens).

Well, we have come a long way, baby, since the 20th century, and the IOC in recognizing the complexities of gender and sexual identities has permitted women like Semenya to compete in the Olympics as women. But if we say it is acceptable in sports for individuals to have outside of normal levels of androgens if they occur by nature, why do we ban the use of androgens when they are made by labs like BALCO and delivered by a syringe? After all, we allow athletes to consume all sorts of supplements that build strength and design sophisticated skis and suits that allow them to carve a few hundredths of a second off a run to give a winning time. Why are the advantages conferred by steroids off-limits?

Perhaps one of the most compelling reasons is once every two years, our kids find themselves glued to their TVs and iPhones to watch Olympic athletes compete. Current estimates are that three to five percent of adolescent boys and about one percent of girls take anabolic steroids. Illicit steroids are taken at concentrations hugely in excess of normal levels of steroids and have significant effects not only on the body, but also on the brain; effects that may be long-lasting or even permanent. Given that these drugs are not all that difficult to get, and the Web is replete with all sorts of advice on how to take them, the last thing kids need is doping Olympians as their role models. For these young competitors, let’s agree any advantage given to Caster Semenya by her natural androgens is OK but the edge given to Marion Jones by her unnatural androgens is not.

Leslie Henderson
Leslie Henderson, Ph.D. is senior associate dean for faculty affairs and professor of Physiology 
and Neurobiology at The Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.



July 22 • 2:00 PM

The Alabama Judge Who Refuses to Let Desegregation Orders Go Ignored

A federal judge in Alabama says a local school board has failed to meet legal mandate to integrate.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.