Few subjects interest me less than sports and weightlifting amongst drug-addled retards, so I must hand it to Bigger, Stronger, Faster to make a documentary that holds my attention. Though it lagged a bit at times, I respect Chris Bell (writer and director) for making this look at steroid use evenhanded and straightforward despite the traditionally histrionic treatment of steroid use. Anabolic steroids used both by professional athletes and amateur bodybuilders have been the subject of scandals, breaking news flashes about the latest epidemic sweeping America, and a series of congressional hearings despite being a relative storm in a teacup. The film handles this well and brings the topic back down to earth. It is just as well that Bell is a self-described gym rat, so he is able to sympathize with those juicing, though he clearly does not approve. Still, one of the benefits of documentaries is that even if there are chunks you do not care about, there are still some take-home points that resonate.
Bigger, Stronger, Fasterties the desire to use and abuse steroids with the American drive to be the best. The bonds are unmistakable, though such comparisons between American greatness and an injectable performance enhancer are sure to cause self-appointed patriots to recoil. Childhood heroes such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mark McGwire cultivated an image of self-made titans who succeeded solely through sweat and good nutrition, exhorting their adolescent fans to do the same. When athletes, actors, and others in the public eye are caught using steroids, either they plead the fifth or deny the steroids had an effect. Arnold admitted he was on them when he won bodybuilding titles, stated he would still use them, then later advocated testing for and banning their use in sports. Leave it to Jose Canseco to be the voice of reason, not only admitting to using them, but making clear that their use in professional sports is the rule rather than the exception. All the while, parents bleat about how the sport is ruined and children need better role models, and elected officials wax poetic about the purity of sports; the public watched the games and ignored the inhuman physiques and monstrous heads on the athletes as they crushed the ball. Winning is an inherent American desire, as is having our cake and eating it. Steroid use was everyone’s asshole, but nonetheless the ratings for baseball was never greater than when unbreakable home run records were being broken. The film captures this dichotomy skillfully – the American myth of hard work and natural talent, and the drive to succeed with or without it.
The medical aspects of anabolic steroid use are given some attention, and I found it gratifying that even doctors are shown as being complete twits on the subject. One is pictured as a crusader against steroid use, testifying about the dangers of the drugs, despite a lack of any significant numbers of cases with harmful side effects. Another defends steroid use, stating “There are no papers on any dangers of steroid use. That is probably because we are not studying it…” It is probable he did not think before opening his mouth, but the real meat of the debate on safety of anabolic steroids lies here. Ignore the parents who decry steroids in schools (one of whom is convinced for little reason that his son committed suicide solely because of the roids), the politicians who listen to testimony about an epidemic, and the experts who use emotional appeals. Trust the data, and you will be on solid ground on any issue. Unfortunately, there are no real studies on what hormone therapy does long term. In the short term there is acne, hair growth, testicular atrophy, and possibly clitoral enlargement. These are short term effects, well known, and some of which are reversible. What is more important are the long term effects – and because anabolic steroids are not legal for performance enhancement, these will never be known. They may likely increase cardiovascular risk, leading to heart attacks and strokes in fairly young people. Kirby Puckett died at the age of 46 from a stroke, for example. They may increase risk of certain hematologic malignancies or solid cancers. Identifying these risks are difficult enough for medications that are regularly used, and is impossible for drugs driven underground by ridiculous displays like what we saw in Congress. The hormone types, doses, sources of drugs all vary; and individual use varies widely from irregular juicing to massive daily use. So the long term risks will always be a rumor. I find it hilarious that the self-righteous guardians of morality always make their own cause infinitely more difficult by their actions. If one wanted to ban steroids, the first step is making it legal, acceptable, and – most importantly - subject to studies. Then, we could look at how best to deal with these and other drugs and matters like how to overcome addiction. But then, being reasonable was never the strong suit of those who consider themselves morally right.
The bullshit gets deeper as Bell considers performance enhancing measures that are legal and illegal; there is no rhyme or reason as to why one can use an altitude chamber to increase their blood counts, but cannot take a autotransfusion the day before an event. And it is legal to use Adderall when flying a $20 million fighter jet (and you can vaporize some Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan while high on speed), but not when carrying a football. Well, we knew our War on Drugs was a fiction to begin with, but it is always funny to see how nonsensical we can get with what drugs are legal or not, and why. A great sequence involves Bell mixing up his own performance-enhancing protein pills containing mostly rice flour, a label full of lies and a photoshopped photo of himself, and all of it is legal. Each bottle cost him $1.50 to make, and he can sell it on a store shelf for $50. Meanwhile, he discusses the market for nutrition supplements approaching $23 billion in the United States; this market took off after Orrin Hatch engineered a bill to deregulate supplements so that anyone could make or sell them without any oversight, and the FDA (gutted in the past decade with staff and budget cuts) is required to prove there is a safety issue before interfering with their sale. Most supplements are made in Utah, which happens to have as its senior senator Orrin Hatch. Yet another reason to incinerate the entire state and its contents.
The weakness of Bigger, Stronger, Faster lies in any moral judgement. The director does discuss the rightness and fairness of using steroids, including a weepy segment where he and his two brothers discuss their personal use with their parents. Chris Bell notes he did not use them for any period of time due to an innate feeling that such use is morally wrong. Fine, but he is surrounded by people who do not feel any such moral conundrum. One fan at a football game approved of the practice “as long as the guy is on my team.” With the extensive web of professional and amateur workout artists using anabolic steroids, the goal is being the best, and it is accepted that artificial means of attaining that goal are among the means that can be used. If you have a problem with their use, then you can accept being second best, or not making the team at all. Or benching only 500 pounds instead of 700. Some of the steroid users are clearly deluded, believing that they too will become wrestling stars or famous actors, or simply be famous or great in some vaguely-defined way thanks to having arms that cannot fit through sleeves. They are in love with the gym, and are willing to lose their jobs and families to keep their addiction to steroids intact. And it does appear to work like an addiction for being difficult to quit despite some potential social or occupational impact.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster makes strong connections between the American myth of deserved greatness and the use of steroids, both subjects requiring some mental gymnastics to justify. Fact is, we want to be the best, and there is no such thing as playing dirty. There is only a winner and a vast field of losers, and steroids may be the edge one needs. What would make America and its image less annoying is simply admitting that this ‘take no prisoners’ attitude is the case, and dispensing with the ‘hard work and eat your veggies’ platitudes from America’s counterfeit heroes. Sure, this will disappoint the children, but we do not give our children the credit they deserve. They will discover we are flawed, morally flexible, and inherently full of shit eventually, so we should spare them that disservice. As a nation, and as individuals, we may yet find some measure of integrity by coming to terms with our compromise.