ONE OF THE most disturbing trends in sports today is the increasing use of anabolic steroids - synthetic derivations of the male hormone testosterone - by woman athletes, despite repeated warnings of possible dire consequences.
"Giving male hormones to a male may not be a very wise thing to do, but at least you are giving him more of something his body produces naturally. But if you start giving a female that same male hormone, it's going contrary to her whole endocrine makeup," said Dr. Clayton Thomas, a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee's Sports Medicine Committee and a consultant on human reproduction at the Harvard School of Public Health.
"I don't think you could do this for an extended length of time without running a great risk of doing permanent damage to her endocrine normality, as well as her long-range potential for child-bearing.
"I think you even run the risk of causing neoplasms (abnormal growths) or cancers in some part of her body that would not have developed if she hadn't taken these steroids. That may be a rather free-wheeling statement, but I feel strongly about it - particularly in light of the problems we have seen with a female hormone that was widely used and thought to be completely safe: the oral contraceptive pill."
When the American College of Sports Medicine issued a position statement on the use and abuse of anabolic-androgenic steroids in sports last year, it took a similarly strong stand:
"Precise information concerning the abuse of anabolic steroids by female athletes is unavailable. Nevertheless, there is no reason to believe females will not be tempted to adopt the use of these medicines.
"The use of anabolic steroids by females, particularly those who are either prepubertal or have not attained full growth, is especially dangerous. The undesired side effects include masculinization, disruption of normal growth patterns, voice changes, acne, hirsutism and enlargement of the clitoris.
"The long-term effects on reproductive function are unknown, but anabolic steroids may be harmful in this area. Their ability to interfere with the menstrual cycle has been well documented.
"For these reasons, all concerned with advising, training, coaching, and providing medical care for female athletes should exercise all precautions available to prevent the use of anabolic steroids by female athletes."
Females indeed have been tempted to use steroids in pursuit of the same sort of muscle mass and strength gains for which male athletes take them. A growing number are using them.
"Unfortunately, a lot of girls in this country feel that they can't compete with the Europeans and win a gold medal unless they take steroids, so they either have to be satisfied just to see themselves improve and remain below the world standard, or they start taking steroids," said Pat Connolly, former women's track coach at UCLA and wife of four-time Olympic hammer thrower Harold Connolly.
"I know of about a dozen women in track and field who have tried them, and use them, because they've been to Europe and they're somewhat 'wise' about them, if there can be such a thing," continued Connolly.
"Then there are a few women who have been given them by unscrupulous coaches who tell them they are vitamins. The wiser girls just say, 'No, I don't want any of that stuff, I have my own vitamins.' But some take it . . .
"There are obviously only a few coaches in the country who would do something that crummy, but I know it happens."
Primarily women in the throwing events, plus some pentathletes, high jumpers, long jumpers and middle distance runners, use anabolic steroids. The practice is nowhere near as widespread as it is among men in track and field, and the dosages taken by women are considerably smaller.
Suspicions among American women that their East European Competitors use steroids have been strengthened by the one-year suspension of East German shot putter Ilona Slupianek after she tested positive for steroids at the 1977 European Cup; the 18-month suspension of Soviet pentathlete Nadyezhda Tkachenko, whose gold medal in the 1978 European Championships at Prague was taken away when she tested positive for steroid use; and the defection of East German sprinter Renate Neufeld, who fled to West Germany because she said she was forced by the trainer of her track club in East Berlin to take pills that later were analyzed and found to be anabolic steroids.
"It's a very critical thing now, because when I put on a clinic or a workshop in track and field, what can I tell a girl, especially in the throwing events?" wonders Czech-born Olga Fikotova Connolly, 1956 gold medalist and five-time Olympic competitor in the discus, former wife of Harold Connolly, and now a resident of Culver City, Calif.
"I can say, 'Well, if you develop your physical powers and your skills and your agility and your technique to a maximum, you can throw the discus 200 or 205 feet. And she says, 'But I would like to break the world record.'
"There is no way in the world a woman nowadays, in the throwing events-at least the shot put and the discus. I'm sure about the javelin-can break the world record unless she is on steroids. These awful drugs have changed the complexion of track and field.
"It's a terrible thing, but it's true. Once a girl has developed her natural powers to the utmost, she has to start taking something that will alter her natural endowments of strength in order to continue the quest for a world record. She sees these big balloons competing, and she thinks she must become a balloon, too."
This presents a philosophical dilemma for many women athletes.
"It's sad, because the use of steroids does-I hate to say this, but it's true- it makes freaks out of women," said Pat Connolly.
"Women are beautiful creatures the way God made them, and they can do a lot of things tremendously well. We don't even have any idea of how well we can do some things because we haven't been trying very long. But by taking a male hormone, a woman is really changing what she is all about.
I've been some women who have been taking them, and their personalities change. It's just really sad and depressing that steroids are part of the scene, and that a woman instead of perfecting her body the way God gave it to her, has to make herself into some creature that's not really a woman and not really a man.
"I get into some pretty heated arguments about it," she continues. "I think it's rotten, even though you can take steroids 'intelligently', and go off them after a few weeks and function normally as a woman and have children and so forth. I just think women should be able to compete, to develop their physical and psychological potential, without having to take hormones that are not natural in the female endocrine system."
Generally speaking, the women athletes who take steroids do so in much lower doses and for shorter "cycles" than their male counterparts.
"First of all, women have to be careful that the change in their system isn't too drastic or they could easily have emotional problems that would do far more damage to their performance than any gain in strength would justify," said Pat Connolly.
"Women who start with a very small dose for four or six weeks, train on it, and then go off the drug and let their bodies get normal again still have the benefit of that training. They have taught the muscles to do new things, and the knowhow remains. They can continue to compete at a higher level even though they're off the drug.
"I think women coaches feel a lot differently about it than males who coach females. There are some very highly principled male coaches who don't want their girls fiddling with that stuff, but there are others who let their egos get in the way. All they care about is performance, and when that happens there doesn't seem to be any ethics anymore."
Pat Connolly, whose UCLA team won the national title in 1977 and was second in 1978, believes, as many male athletes and coaches do, that either there should be much stricter testing for steroids, or that they should no longer be banned, so that athletes taking them could more easily get proper medical monitoring.
"Very few of the girls taking steroids have good medical supervision," she said. "No doctor would prescribe them for a woman. A few 'understanding' doctors say that while they are 'unaware' a patient is on steroids, they will do regular blood, liver and urine checks to watch for abnormalities."
"Before anyone turns to steroids," Pat Connally said, "they should have at least 10 years of competition, be at least 24 or 25 years old, and pretty close to the peak of what they can do naturally. Then it's their decision, whether an additional 10 or 20 percent improvement is worth the cost."
She obviously does not think so, even though no one truly knows how great the cost might be. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption