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For a Few Atoms More

When the game becomes less of a game

Roald Hoffmann

Will There Be Other Ones?

THG is a "designer steroid." With so many sites for substitution on that skeleton of four fused rings, there are many ways to change this structure—medicinal chemists have been doing it for years. Many of the resulting molecules will have no physiological effect at all (remember epitestosterone?), others will be poisonous, and still others will prove to be anabolic and really harmful in large doses.

How harmful? The problem is that these drugs have seldom been studied in detail (excepting testosterone, of course). When used illegally by athletes, there is no standard dosage. Anecdotal evidence indicates that athletes are reaching steroid concentrations 5 to 30 times greater than the natural level of testosterone in the body. The list of potential effects begins with acne, hirsutism, changes in body shape and voice, and increased sebaceous gland activity. The list goes on to include permanent muscle fiber damage, breast enlargement in men, breast diminution in women, effects on sexual organs, and liver damage.

Asking the question "Why would anyone risk doing that to themselves?" ignores human nature and shifts the blame away from ourselves. Our gladiatorial (spectator!) instincts and our own active glorification of athletic prowess are important parts of what makes young people do such foolish things.

It is relatively easy to make new steroids and test, in a rough way, which are anabolic. An average chemist (as you see, no Ph.D. needed) can do it. The chemistry, like that involved in the transformation of cold-medicine pseudoephedrine to street-drug methamphetamine (another dismal story), is really simple. The making of some steroids may require skillful hands. But they too can be hired.

So is this a losing battle? To the extent that we are struggling against ourselves, to the extent that our clamor for sports victory perversely encourages the formation of muscle at any cost (voilà! 300-pound football players in high school), it's hard to think that anything will change. A few will maim themselves for the dream of money or fame. The market to supply them, to think up ever more ingenious ways of subverting the doping tests, will not disappear. And chemists somewhere will do the dirty work. Of course, the institutions we create, that one might think would control unfair and illegal use, are no better. The reaction of the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association to the Mitchell report was shamefully evasive and legalistic.

The hope is that there is a strong place in the human dream for a level playing field. And a special feeling for the disastrous effect steroid use can have on children, whose aspirations are focused on athlete-heroes and heroines. The national and international anti-doping agencies can also hire good chemists, and develop tests for potential new anabolic steroids. We can relearn to see the action in our softball teams, instead of the "major" leagues (for a kid who lived on Bedford Avenue, the world ended anyway when the Dodgers left Ebbets Field). And I will keep on cycling, on my own Tour de Ithaca.

© Roald Hoffman


  • Mitchell, G. J. 2007. Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball. New York: Office of the Commissioner of Baseball. Dec. 13. 
  • United States District Court, Northern District of California, San Francisco Division. 2007. United States of America v. Barry Lamar Bonds. Indictment CR07 0732. Nov. 15.
  • Shipley, A. 2007. Marion Jones admits to steroid use. Washington Post, Oct. 5, A01.

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