Ben Plucknett's banishment for life from international amateur track and field following the discovery of his use of muscle-building steroids has reopened a longstanding international debate over the drugs.

Plucknett, 27, set a world discus record of 233 feet 7 inches in Modesto, Calif., in May and increased the record to 237-4 last week in Stockholm.But the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), the sport's governing body that levied the suspension, voided both performances.

Anabolic steroids, the kind found in Plucknett's urine specimen, are synthetic male hormones that are believed to increase physical endurance, reduce recovery time, build body mass and have a general masculinizing effect on the body.

Observers say that football players, world-class weight lifters, discus throwers and shot-putters have been experimenting with the drugs since the early 1960s and that in recent years use of them has become widespread, if not universal.

The use of steroids is prohibited under IAAF rules, which govern all international events.

Concern about drug use among track and field athletes at the 1976 Montreal Olympics was so great that $2 million reportedly was spent on steroid-testing procedures.

"Most of the great weight people in the world are on steroids," Sam Bell, Indiana University track coach, said Thursday. "My guess is, for those you would consider to be world-class, you're talking about 99.9 percent of the athletes."

In a copyrighted story in the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Thursday, Plucknett, a native of Lincoln, said he has made two phone calls since the ban was announced -- to his parents in Missouri and to the Journal.

On the advice of his attorneys, Plucknett said he would not discuss anything about the traces of steroids found in his blood in Christchurch, New Zealand. Those traces were found more than five months before the IAAF announced the results of the tests.

"It's out of my hands," he said."It's all being handled by legal counselors now. I expect certain things to be done by my federation, but I can't discuss them. I have a certain time frame in mind, but it's all speculation at this point, so I don't want to start any rumors.

"I've been advised to be very careful. I guess this is a classic case of no comment, and it's the only one I'm going to make to the media."

Plucknett has avoided the media since the ban was announced in London. He was told about it last Monday night in Dublin, Ireland, where he was preparing for an international meet.

"I went into seclusion," he said. "I saw no one for 36 hours. You learn how fast news travels. I couldn't believe how many reporters showed up."

Pete Cava, a spokesman for The Athletics Congress, the governing body for track and field in the United States, said, "I've heard of steroids being used by weight men." When asked why athletes use the drugs and how widespread the practice is, Cava replied: "You'd have to ask someone who has taken them."

The Athletics Congress is planning a hearing to look into Plucknett's case. Until then, it will allow him to compete in domestic meets at which the only participants are U.S. citizens and resident foreigners.

Finnish discus thrower Markku Tuokko, who, along with four other track stars was banned in 1977 for using steroids, claimed that steroids ar no longer an optional training aid, but a necessity.

"Without hormones, there is no way one can reach international top-level competition and make new records these days," Tuokko said at the time. "A record cannot be broken without hormones."

Observers say athletes take the steroids orally every day during training, then stop several weeks before a major competition. Because they do not know precisely how long traces of steroids remain in their bodies, athletes are sometimes caught when they miscalculate the last amount taken or mistakenly believe they will not be tested at a particular meet.

Anabolic steroids are prescribed by doctors for patients with growth disorders and debilitating diseases, according to the American Medical Association's 1980 report on drug evaluations.

Known side effects, according to the AMA, involve potential changes in liver function, including increased susceptibility to hepatitis, and the retention of salts and fluids.

"The use of anabolic steroids to improve athletic performance is unanimously condemned," reads part of the AMA report ". . . It is believed that many athletes -- weight lifters, shot-putters and discus throwers -- regularly ingest anabolic steroids in dosages that frequently far exceed those used for other purposes."

A physician at the National Institutes of Health, who asked not to be identified, said last week that there has not been a major study on the use of steroids by athletes, but that, "My basic hunch is that steroids aren't very dangerous. They are probably not exposing themselves to danger."

But others do not share this optimism and criticize U.S. medical researchers for not studying the issue.

"The Eastern Bloc countries do research on steroids, but by and large the (U.S.) physical education and medical communities say it's immoral . . . which I think is a very naive approach," Bell said. He added that steroid use is so widespread that he believed any ban is futile.

"One of the tragedies of this is that, in this country, we have not done the kind of studies on steroids which would enable us to give the athletes some long-range ramifications of their use," Bell said.