When track and field icon Marion Jones fell from grace this past year, forever tainted by the admission that she used performance-enhancing substances, the case stood out for several reasons.
There was the personal tragedy of it all — seeing an athlete throw away a golden Olympic legacy when many experts agree she didn't need to cheat to be extraordinary.
But the Jones episode was also noteworthy because it involved a female athlete.
When the topic of performance-enhancing drugs in sports surfaces, the names that invariably come to mind are baseball stars such as Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds, or world-class sprinters such as Ben Johnson and Jason Gatlin.
But with the women's Final Four unfolding now in Tampa, we spoke with antidoping experts to get a sense of how prevalent banned substances are with female athletes.
"It's not as much of a problem with women," said Anthony Butch, director of the Olympic Analytical Laboratory at the University of California at Los Angeles, one of only two labs in the United States accredited by the World Anti-Doping Agency. "Clearly, if you look at sports where there are males and females competing, such as the Olympics, we probably analyze as many female specimens as male. So one would expect the same number of positives, and we don't seem to see that. It's obviously skewed to the male. Now why is that? That's the million-dollar question."
Butch, who replaced renowned UCLA cheatbuster Dr. Don Catlin in 2007, estimates that three-quarters of cases involving tainted specimens involve men.
"I have some thoughts on why that is," he said. "From the point of view of male vs. female, one of the big compounds that's abused is anabolic steroids. And I think the reason males test positive more often is that females aren't taking it as much because it's more apparent. They start developing male features. First, that would be easier to detect by a coach or trainer, and second, they're still female and they want to look female."
That psychological factor — a fear of losing a feminine quality — and the fact that men can more easily mask whether they're using steroids are at play, says Butch. Men have to worry about producing more of the female hormone estrogen if they use anabolic steroids — leading in some cases to breast enlargement — but they can circumvent that problem by taking anti-estrogens.
Catlin, who now runs the new U.S. Anti-Doping Research Institute in Los Angeles, is known for developing complex tests that have broken the codes to many illegal substances over the years. His work also broke open the famous BALCO case, which eventually brought down many pro athletes, including Jones and sprinter Kelli White, for a time the world's fastest woman. Catlin says he doesn't know how many female athletes may break the rules to gain an unfair competitive edge, but he points out they have an advantage in eluding detection if they chose to do so.
"Men and women use steroids to get bigger and stronger, run faster and jump higher, recover from training or whatever," said Catlin. "But the big difference is that a woman can get the same benefit as a man with much less of the dose, maybe a tenth of it."
Catlin, who doesn't keep a log of how many positive tests involve men vs. women, adds that women don't always exhibit defeminizing manifestations of steroid use. "It's quite variable," he said. "I don't know exactly what Marion Jones was doing; she never really said. But she looked quite nice."
Money and fame
It's a far cry from the image of the hulking East German Olympic women's swim team from the 1960s and 1970s, as doping methods have become increasingly sophisticated and harder to detect. Abuse seems far more prevalent in individual sports, such as track and field or bodybuilding, than team sports.
"There are certainly women who clean up and come to us, and usually stay with us," said Dr. Larry Maile, president of USA Powerlifting, which promotes drug-free powerlifting. "But my sense of outside the small umbrella of USA Powerlifting, it's a bigger problem — and more so with men."
In sports in general, Maile guesses that the percentage of men who use steroids "is probably four or five times that of women." Cheating is more likely to occur, he adds, where big money is at stake. "If you're running in a track meet where you can win $1-million — and there are some of those in Europe — the incentive is really high to win. An athlete really has to win only two or three in their career and they're set."
The case of world-class sprinter White illustrates the influence coaches and trainers can have. Three years ago, she testified in Washington to a House committee looking into federal standards for drug use in pro sports. A San Francisco Chronicle account describes how White told the committee that her coach, Remi Korchemny, had introduced her to Victor Conte, founder of the Bat Area Laboratory Co-operative, or BALCO, and took a substance she thought was flaxseed oil.
Not long after, Conte told White the substance was a steroid called TGH or "the clear." White said she immediately stopped taking TGH and fended off pressure to use it for two years, but gave in amid a string of injuries and subpar efforts in 2003.
"My advisers were pointing to other performances of athletes and saying I needed to do what they were doing in order to compete at that level," White testified. "In a very short period of time, I had gone from being a very competitive sprinter to being the fastest women in the world."
But she paid a price — banned from the sport for two years.
Recent studies by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate steroid use in high school appears to be on the decline, but that an estimated 3 to 6 percent of students have used them. A new area of concern is high-school age girls taking steroids for cosmetic reasons. A former Texas high school cheerleader made news in February when she revealed how, in 2003, she took them to get better toned. She wound up with depression and attempted suicide.
Diane Elliot, a professor of medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University, devotes her time to a program called Athena, aimed at spreading awareness of the dangers of steroid use among girls, and Atlas focusing on boys. The program's Web site, using data from the CDC, estimates that 5.3 percent of teen girls have used steroids for cosmetic purposes.
Her studies show that girls who use steroids for body toning eventually stop because steroids take too long to produce results. "The girls use them for a couple of days — then they get a pimple and say, 'Oh, that's a side effect, I'm going to stop this.' They find there are other drugs that help them lose weight faster."
The NFL is working to bring the Athena and Atlas programs to high schools nationwide.
"We look at sports as an ideal vehicle for helping kids make positive decisions,'' Elliot said, "and to learn things that will keep them healthy for life."