Steroids…as American as Apple Pie?

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Posted May 29, 2008 in Film

Chris Bell stopped believing in heroes when sworn WWF rivals the Iron Sheik and Hacksaw Jim Duggan got arrested—together—for cruising around high on pot, booze, and coke. Then in short order, Hulk Hogan, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger copped to steroids. Bell, a short, solid dynamo with a duck-on-helium squawk, became a documentary filmmaker. His brothers never stopped chasing their idols. Younger bro Smelly is a power lifter who benches over 600 pounds. Older bro Mike made it to the WWE himself as one of the meatheads the stars beat up to look good. A decade after his contract wasn’t renewed, Mike’s still huffing through audition tapes to get back in the ring. “I’d rather be dead than average,” he vows. What Mike and Smelly have in common besides their pretty blonde wives is a desperate need for success and a steroid habit. For them, it’s plain. Use steroids and win, stay clean and languish in mediocrity. Bell’s documentary on artificial enhancers asks “At what price glory?” and finds a surprising answer: Cheap. His big shocker isn’t that everyone uses steroids, but that maybe they aren’t so bad.  

 

Steroids as demonized innocents is a tough pill to swallow, and while Bell isn’t out to build a clear case, he succeeds in muddying the waters. Alcohol kills 75,000 a year. Steroids, three. On the list of substances behind an emergency room visit, it’s #142, behind Flintstones vitamins. (Full disclosure: At four, I had my stomach pumped after a Pebbles and Bam-Bam overdose.) ‘Roid rage might be hyped up by the media, who just love their sports scandals, teen specials, and tabloid frenzies like the Benoit tragedy.  Could steroids be an easy scapegoat? Consider Bell’s strongest, but least explored fact: In 2005 Congress devoted four days to hashing out steroids in baseball, more than they spent discussing health care, the levees in New Orleans, and the Iraq War. Apparently, their constituents would rather hear them wax rhapsodic about their childhood in the dugout than, you know, govern.  

 

Baseball, these congressmen trumpet, is the symbol of the American Dream. Which may be closer to the truth than they’d like to admit. These homerun heroes are just doing what it takes to win. As Bell moves into his documentary’s final act, he pulls together an argument that in our winner-take-all country, steroids are the new apple pie. After all, we invented them in the 1950s to beat the Commies at the Olympics. (Bell drolly notes that by Rocky IV, we blamed them on Ivan Drago.) Bell turns up an Olympic tester who divulges that US runner Carl Lewis failed his drug test before the 1988 games, only to win the gold by default after Ben Johnson was discredited for steroids. Why was Johnson pilloried but Lewis pardoned with “inadvertent usage?” Argues Johnson, because he was guilty of being Canadian. (Still, Bell leaves out the best reason for prohibiting steroids: Their arms race side effect that you can’t be clean and competitive—if allowed, they’ll be, in essence, mandatory.)

 

In its last minutes, the impressively thorough doc kicks into high gear, layering Patton’s flag-front speech to the troops over facts about uppers for Air Force pilots (we’re the only nation that allows and requires them), and floating out an indirect indictment of hypocrisy for George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former for managing the Rangers when Jose Canseco testified that all heads knew the team shot up steroids, and the latter for speechifying that he owes his success to “working hard and playing by the rules.” Pumped up with the truth, he confronts the “Governator” in Venice Beach, only to be pulled into a grinning arm wrestling photo op that lands on the front of the LA Times. Bell’s more flushed with excitement about his brush with greatness than disappointed he never got to ask a single question and his ambivalence matches our new swirl of confusion. 

 


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