Prague, 25 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The extraordinary impact of the visual media has transformed successful athletes into some of the biggest pop culture icons of our day.
Superstars like soccer player David Beckham, tennis player Andre Agassi, or basketball player Michael Jordan have been not only idols but role models for young people.
Moreover, the increasing interaction between sports and show business has given athletes-turned-actors -- such as bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger and wrestler Dwayne Johnson, better known as "The Rock" -- cult status among many young males striving to emulate their idols' imposing physiques.
"We are seeing is increasing evidence that...we're seeing in the U.K. an increasing culture of steroid use and physically-enhancing drugs among young people."
The growing number of young people dissatisfied with their physical appearance has given rise to an unprecedented interest throughout the world in bodybuilding, which has been dubbed "muscle mania" or "gym fever."
But a number of youths don't stop at workout sessions alone. They are also turning to anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs to obtain faster results. Some young people even resort to steroid use without working out, simply waiting for their muscles to grow.
The problem has become so widespread that specialists are worried that steroids -- widely available on the Internet and taken with no medical supervision -- represent a health time-bomb for the younger generation.
Sportswriter Paul Kelso, of the London-based "Guardian" daily, says steroids pose more dangers to ordinary young people than to professional athletes: "There's a growing gymnasium culture of bodybuilding. And we're finding that there's more and more evidence that young people are taking drugs for no reason, really, other than vanity -- to grow bigger muscles, to look better. And, of course, there are associated medical problems that come with this. And this is a worrying side effect that is a long way away from the sort of problems that we usually talk about [when referring] to performance-enhancing drugs, which is at the very top level of sport."
There are multiple health risks associated with taking anabolic steroids -- a synthetic substance similar to the male hormone testosterone.
Steroid use can interrupt growth in young people. It can also promote arteriosclerosis and cause the heart muscle to expand without commensurate growth in the capillary system providing oxygen to the heart -- something that can lead to heart attacks. Oral steroids can also lead to liver cancer.
Steroid intake can also lead to increased aggressiveness -- something that has caused particular alarm among observers who fear doping may lead to violence.
Some specialists, however, say it is difficult to prove there is a direct link between steroid use and violence. Lee Monaghan, of Newcastle University in Britain, has been investigating steroid use by bodybuilders: "It may only be particular types of steroids, for example testosterone-based steroids -- which, if taken in certain quantities by certain people in certain contexts, may enhance aggressive mood states, but that in itself may not necessarily cause violence. So as you could see, there is a whole series of qualifications to conventional understandings. And actually, sociological research indicates that those understandings can be quite complex, quite sophisticated, and they actually serve to regulate usage within the [bodybuilding] subculture."
Steroid use has other proven side effects specific to men, such as shrunken testicles, baldness, and infertility.
Journalist Kelso says there is a connection between the increasing number of high-profile doping cases involving top-level athletes and the growing interest that youths show toward steroids.
Kelso says that such cases represent free advertising for steroid producers: "When there is a positive drugs test for a high-profile sportsman, sales of the product that he has tested positive for go up. The best advertising that steroids manufacturers can have is to have a leading athlete test positive for their product, because it shows that the product works. So, what we are seeing is increasing evidence that -- away from top-level competition of course, where cheating is the big issue -- we're seeing in the UK an increasing culture of steroid use and physically-enhancing drugs among young people."
Even though the International Federation of Body Builders (IFBB) is a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Code, the widescale use of steroids among amateur bodybuilders has cast a negative image on the sport.
Newcastle University's Monaghan says many amateur bodybuilders prefer the steroid shortcut to achieving muscle mass rather than pursuing a longer-term course of intensive, drug-free training: "It's certainly possible to build and maintain a muscular physique without steroids, depending upon other considerations such as genetics of the body, amount of time training, dedication to training, knowledge of training and diets which can be quite complex and sophisticated. So, yes, it's possible to do bodybuilding without steroids and it's important to recognize that in response to stereotypes. But at the same time, the use of steroids is normalized, is accepted -- it's not considered deviant among many bodybuilders who aspire to recreate championship-standard bodybuilding physique."
However, Monaghan says many amateur bodybuilders insist steroids pose no risks if they are taken in moderation and together with an otherwise healthy lifestyle.
Sportswriter Kelso believes that the responsibility for setting better standards for younger generations rests ultimately with sports stars themselves: "Sportsmen carry a responsibility in our culture -- if it's only the Western culture -- that other celebrities do not. Sports stars, because they compete under sport-developed principles of fair play, they do carry a great weight. And there is such huge prominence placed on winning that these sportsmen become the center of multimillion-pound marketing campaigns for companies who seek to sell their products on the basis that the men and women who endorse them are winners, and winning is what counts. And that is the overriding cultural imperative in sport now. But there is perhaps a problem there, if sport is to retain its integrity."