Schwarzenegger raps steroid use, but the Arnold Classic remains a showcase for drug-enhanced 'freak' physiques
By EDWARD EPSTEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
Story posted on March 8, 2005
When federal drug agents swept in to subpoena current and past competitors at the annual pro bodybuilding competition staged by California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, it was a sharp reminder of the pervasive connection between the sport and steroids.
Despite Schwarzenegger's repeated pronouncements that steroids are harmful and should be banned from the sport, there is widespread use of steroids, human growth hormones and other illegal performance-enhancing drugs among competitors at the contest that bears his name.
As he has since he and a partner created the Arnold Classic in 1989, Schwarzenegger - seven-time winner of bodybuilding's top prize, the Mr. Olympia contest - plans to attend when the winner is crowned and receives the $100,000 prize on March 5 in Columbus, Ohio.
The raid at the Columbus, Ohio, competition last March helped lead to the federal indictments of Milos Sarcev, who finished fifth at the Arnold Classic in 1995, and Dennis James, a two-time competitor. Sarcev has been linked to Victor Conte, the figure at the heart of the scandal involving the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, which has implicated stars from baseball, football and track and field. The two men are awaiting trial in a Des Moines, Iowa, federal court on charges of illegally distributing steroids.
Conte, who was at the competition when the subpoenas were served, lists several bodybuilders as clients for his "nutritional services."
This year's classic will feature many of the biggest names and physiques in bodybuilding - men who are using steroids and other body-enhancing drugs to get the "freaky" look that fans and judges favor, say past and current competitors and longtime bodybuilding contest officials.
Over the past decade or so, illegal drugs have been implicated in the deaths or serious illness of several pro competitors.
"Everybody in bodybuilding takes drugs," said Wayne DeMilia, who for 25 years ran the International Federation of Body Building's pro division, a job that included supervising the Arnold Classic and overseeing drug testing for the show, testing that he admits competitors knew how to cheat.
The link between pro bodybuilding and illegal substances has become increasingly public. Web sites, videotapes and some muscle magazines discuss the topic openly.
After becoming governor in late 2003, Schwarzenegger took the title of executive editor for Flex magazine, perhaps the biggest selling of the hard- core muscle magazines, and of the more mainstream Muscle and Fitness. Its February issue, which promotes the Arnold Classic in its pages, features the indicted James in a picture spread and carries a column by his alleged co- conspirator, Sarcev.
Schwarzenegger's continued support for the show puts the governor at odds with such other top Republicans as President Bush, Arizona Sen. John McCain and Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. All have pushed for tougher laws against steroids, which they say undermine confidence in all sports, set a bad example for young people who look to sports idols as role models, and threaten the health of those who use them.
In this year's Arnold Classic, two of the 14 invited competitors, Victor Martinez and Craig Titus, have served time in jail on steroid-related offenses. Titus has decided to skip the show. A third, 32-year-old Lee Priest, publicly admits he started using steroids when he was 19 and has used them throughout his career.
The bodybuilding event has morphed into a three-day festival of 20 sports and physical activities that will include a strongman's competition, gymnastics, ballroom dance, archery and cheerleading. It has become one of Columbus' biggest tourist draws and, according to Jim Lorimer, the governor's longtime partner in the event, Schwarzenegger still has a financial interest in the event.
"He is still my partner in the business," Lorimer said, "but he is a little bit more than preoccupied today."
The governor's press office directed all questions regarding the Arnold Classic to Lorimer.
Schwarzenegger plans to be on hand for the weekend and will hand out prizes to the winner of the bodybuilding competition, including the $100,000 in cash, an Arnold Schwarzenegger Chronograph watch that retails for $38,400, and a new Hummer.
The governor admits he used steroids during his bodybuilding career, which ended in 1980, when the substances were legal without a prescription. The governor says he now opposes the use of steroids and other illegal drugs and encourages young people to stay away from them.
"Arnold knows all these guys are on drugs," said former Arnold Classic competitor Steve Brisbois. "What's going to happen if these guys keep getting bigger and bigger is that someone else is going to die."
In an appearance before The Chronicle editorial board, the governor sidestepped the issue of whether he thinks bodybuilders today are using illegal drugs. "My feeling is, if you take all the drugs away, we will still have the same winners. It won't change," he said.
Brisbois, who admits he used steroids during his bodybuilding days, quit in 1993 after his friend and fellow competitor Mohammed "Momo" Benaziza died in his hotel room down the corridor from Brisbois after they competed in the Holland Grand Prix contest.
Postmortems blame Benaziza's death on abuse of diuretics. Bodybuilders use these prescription drugs to lose water in the last few days before a contest, in the process allowing themselves to appear hard and ripped.
"I quit," said Brisbois, 43, who now owns a wine shop in Orlando, Fla. "I had no choice. The sport's crazy. Too much drugs. If I was in it still, I'd be dead."
According to Jon Hotten, author of the book "Muscle: A Writer's Trip through a Sport with No Boundaries," bodybuilding promoters "understand that steroids are an integral part of the sport. They encourage this hyper-ripped and huge look of these guys."
In his book, Hotten said today's professional bodybuilders, some of whom compete at 300 pounds while standing less than 6 feet tall, show what a win-at- any-cost culture can produce.
"People were always asking what sports would be like if everyone was allowed to take whatever they wanted to achieve their ends. Well, bodybuilding was what it was like," he wrote of his time on the bodybuilding circuit in 2003.
Hotten said the Arnold Classic is caught up in the dilemma. "It's the great Catch-22 of bodybuilding. People want the competitors to be that size, but the only way they can be that size is by using steroids," he said.
Benaziza's death was followed in 1996 by the death of Austrian Andreas Munzer 12 days after he finished sixth in the Arnold Classic. His death in Munich, Germany, was blamed by his doctors on years of abusing steroids, growth hormones and diuretics.
The two deaths led to testing for diuretics at pro shows, such as the Arnold Classic, sanctioned by the International Federation of Bodybuilding. There is testing for steroids at Schwarzenegger's show and at the biggest bodybuilding show, the Mr. Olympia in Las Vegas. But DeMilia, who headed the IFBB pro division from 1980 until 2004 and oversaw the testing, admitted in an interview that the bodybuilders are always a step ahead of the tests.
"The problem, as the media is finding out now, is that testing runs two to three steps behind people coming up with new drugs and masking agents," he said.
What's more, he said, there are no effective tests for growth hormone or insulin and masking agents for diuretics have grown more effective.
Perhaps most important, except for a few years in the mid-1990s, the federation didn't conduct off-season random testing of the bodybuilders. As the Olympics and such mainstream sports as football and baseball have learned, announced tests on the day of competition are unlikely to catch anyone who has been alerted.
"Let's be honest," DeMilia said. "They're taking stuff that can't be detected."
Calls to Jim Manion, DeMilia's successor at the federation, to ascertain the testing regimen for this year's Arnold Classic, were not returned.
In addition to the deaths of competitors, other bodybuilders have suffered serious health problems tied to the use of drugs. Among the examples:
Kenny "Flex" Wheeler, a four-time Arnold Classic winner, admits in his autobiography that he started using steroids at age 18. He admits he suffered health problems as a result and underwent a kidney transplant two years ago.
Lorimer said he and Schwarzenegger oppose any "enhanced drug use" that violates the law. But he said the use of steroids is rife in almost all sports, not just bodybuilding.
"There is not a sport at the international level in which this is not being done," he said. "From the president of the United States on down, the message is that this is an issue that must be addressed."
While all calls to the governor's office were referred to Lorimer, in an interview with KGO radio this month, Schwarzenegger contradicted DeMilia by saying year-round testing has been done.
"We have drug tests in bodybuilding, may I remind you, we have random tests, exactly the way the Olympic Committee does it. Our tests are based on exactly the way the Olympic athletes are tested. So we do random tests, and anyone that is being detected that takes drugs is getting thrown out or suspended," Schwarzenegger said.
DeMilia said that in the big pro shows one or two bodybuilders were caught each year. Instead of publicly announcing their violations, the federation quietly stripped them of their prize money and place in the show. There was no other fine or loss of lucrative endorsement contracts with makers of sports supplements or with muscle magazines for photo sessions.
In an earlier interview with The Chronicle in September 2003, just before Schwarzenegger was elected governor, Lorimer said of steroids in his show, "I know they use them, but whether they are using them at the time of the competition, I don't know."
Competitor Lee Priest, who stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall and whose off- season weight can hit 270 pounds, is frank about his use of steroids. In a videotaped interview with Tom Platz, himself a popular bodybuilding star of the 1980s, Priest said he starts using a cocktail of steroids and human growth hormone about 12 weeks before a show, just as his dieting to lose weight and look ripped kicks in.
He competes at a little more than 200 pounds. "Bodybuilding is the poster child for steroid use," he told Platz.
Bodybuilders today look much different then they did when Schwarzenegger competed in the 1970s. His top competitive weight was 224 pounds. Today, several top competitors - the reigning Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, his top challenger Jay Cutler, and Germans Markus Ruhl and Gunther Schlierkamp - go on stage in the vicinity of 300 pounds. Together, such giants lead what is called the Era of the Freaks in bodybuilding.
"The notion that Arnold Schwarzenegger has no idea how these huge bodybuilders became these huge bodybuilders is patently absurd," Hotten said.
Schwarzenegger, who under President George H.W. Bush served as chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness, has said he opposes steroid use in sports.
"As somebody who is in a position to influence young people, I want to make my position very clear. I am absolutely against the use of these dangerous and illegal substances," Schwarzenegger wrote in his "New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding."
He added that he wished the bodybuilding federation would improve its testing techniques.
"Personally speaking, I have been trying for more than 10 years to convince the IFBB to use the latest state-of-the-art technology to test both amateurs and professionals for any and all anabolic/androgenic agents," Schwarzenegger wrote.
DeMilia and Brisbois agreed that contests like the Arnold Classic and magazines like Flex and Muscle and Fitness are caught in a symbiotic relationship that feeds on the bigger and bigger, drug-driven bodies fans crave. "The magazines depend on contests because without contests guys wouldn't get into shape for the photo sessions the magazines use year-round," he said.
"The public wants to see this grotesque look" of the big men, Brisbois said. "That's what they demand."
State Sen. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, whose bill aimed at curbing the use of steroids and other supplements among young people was vetoed in September by Schwarzenegger, said she thought the governor was sending a mixed message by sponsoring the Arnold Classic, speaking against steroids and vetoing her bill.
"He's in the best position to clean up the sport and protect our young student athletes," Speier said.
In his veto message, Schwarzenegger said the bill was flawed because it lumped steroids with several legal supplements that might have no ill-effects on those who take them.
"Actions speak volumes," said Speier, who has reintroduced her bill. "He's taking action, but it's action to veto the bill."
The list of pro bodybuilders who have suffered serious health problems or died over the past decade is long and growing. But an exact count isn't possible because not all those with illnesses say their problems are related to drug abuse. All of the following men competed in the Arnold Classic, the pro invitational contest held annually in Columbus, Ohio, under the patronage of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor himself underwent heart surgery at age 49, but has steadfastly denied that it was related to steroid use.
Mohammed "Momo" Benaziza died in his hotel room in the Netherlands in October 1992 after competing in the Holland Grand Prix contest. Doctors linked his death to abuse of diuretics that bodybuilders use to lose water, in the process allowing themselves to appear hard and ripped.
Paul Dillett, a Canadian competitor dubbed "Freakazoid" who weighed about 300 pounds, froze on stage while hitting a double bicep pose at the Arnold Classic in 1994. A few men had to move Dillett into a horizontal position and carry him offstage. The problem: dehydration linked to diuretics.
Andreas Munzer, an Austrian like his idol Schwarzenegger, died of multiple organ failure 12 days after competing in the 1996 Arnold Classic. For years, he had used heavy amounts of steroids and human growth hormones.
Kenny "Flex" Wheeler won the Arnold show four times. He admits to using steroids for 18 years and says he suffered serious health problems. Two years ago, he underwent a kidney transplant.
Don Long, who competed in Schwarzenegger's show in 1997 through '99, also underwent a kidney transplant. In an interview in March's Muscular Development magazine, he says doctors blamed steroids for his health problems.
Mike Matarazzo, who lives in Modesto, underwent a triple heart bypass operation last December at age 39. An online interview with the three-time Arnold competitor hints that steroids played a role in his sudden health problem.