THE INTERNATIONAL Amateur Athletic Federation announced last week that seven Eastern European women athletes -- from the Soviet Union, Bulgaria and Rumania -- were found to have taken anabolic steroids and were therefore suspended from international competition. If the bans run as long as they usually do, these seven women will miss the 1980 Moscow Olympics. That should have a profound effect on at least one Olympic event, since three of the seven -- and the correlation should not surprise you -- are currently the first, second and third fastest women in the world in the 1,500 meter run.
Drugs in sports is nothing new. Nor is the use of anabolic steroids -- synthetic derivatives of the male sex hormone, testosterone -- to increase weight and muscle mass. But the use of these drugs by women is a very recent phenomenon.Ever since the extraordinary performance of East Germany's women athletes in the 1976 Olympics, a controversy has raged over how widespread the use of this drug is, though even the complete layman couldn't help but be suspicious of the size and shape of the East German women swimmers who paraded one after another to the winner's stand in Montreal. One year later an East German woman shot-putter was disqualified from the European track and field championships for having taken the steroids, and the year after that the Russian gold medalist in the women's pentathlon at the same event was similarly found guilty. This year an East German sprinter defected, bringing with her pills that were found to be anabolic steroids. She told of having been forced to take the pills and of being punished when she refused to continue taking them because of their frightening side effects.
There is no question that anabolic steroids work. They can improve athletic performance by a small percentage, and in world-class competition that can mean the difference between first place and last. But the lasting effect on the athletes, especially women athletes, is unknown. There is also no question that just about everybody -- athletes included -- would perfer to witness competition between undrugged athletes. But nobody knows how to break the cycle: it is terribly difficult for serious competitors to abstain so long as they believe their opponents are on the pill.
Many athletes fear that because drug taking is so much more prevalent among Eastern European athletes, testing for drug use in Moscow will be lax. That is why Grete Waitz, the astonishing Norwegian runner who won last week's New York marathon in less time than half of the male winners of the Olympic marathon, says she is not interested in the Olympics: "You know Russia and other East European countries will do anything to win the gold medal. The only thing I can do is train and run." Unfortunately, as long as gold medals are viewed by some as evidence of the superiority of one form of government, that will not be enough.