|Monday, November 17
Conan the Politician
By Tom Farrey
It all started with steroids.
The rise to governor was built on his movie fame. The movie career sprung from his notoriety as the world's top bodybuilder. His claim to that perch was based on his winning a record seven Mr. Olympia titles, with the aid of muscle-building drugs pumping up a body that was once no more techno-human than that of, say, your average junior champion curler -- of the broom, not barbell variety. Which Arnold Schwarzenegger was as a boy in Austria.
He got what he needed. He moved on.
He didn't die.
His back erect and his smile as bright as the mid-day sun, Schwarzenegger, now 56 and California's governor, seems the picture of health and vitality. Large-living proof of how synthetic hormones can actually enhance a person's existence. The new, updated role model for steroids, to replace that of the withered Lyle Alzado.
The anti-steroids lobby is having a hard time grasping what it means to have a steroids profiteer as head of the nation's most populous state. But this much is certain: If Schwarzenegger has any reservations about how his rise to the governor's office might heighten the acceptance of steroids, in sports and elsewhere in society, then his new job offers the chance to adjust his legacy.
"He's in position now to have influence," said Richard Pound, president of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which conducts testing for the Olympics and other sports bodies. "He can address the labeling of (muscle-building) supplements. He can deal with the trafficking of steroids, the use of steroids, the medical classifications of steroids that have no therapeutic application. There are (criminal) disciplinary issues."
California is the world capital for performance-enhancing drugs. It's the state that introduced steroids to the NFL, via the San Dianabol Chargers of the 1960s. Much of the steroids trade in this country still runs through California, where stopping the flow from Mexico is a low priority for law enforcement. California companies led the fight against regulating potentially dangerous sports supplements.
The latest company under a spotlight: San Francisco-based Bay Area Laboratories Co-Operative (BALCO), now the subject of a federal grand jury inquiry and, according to the U.S Anti-Doping Agency, the alleged disseminator of designer steroids to high-profile athletes. More recently came a report that four Oakland Raiders had received letters from the NFL that they had failed for THG and could faces suspension by the NFL.
But it's uncertain he will do anything.
Schwarzenegger did not respond to ESPN.com requests for an interview made through his media representatives. His spokesman, Rob Stutzman, has said of Schwarzenegger's steroid use, "If he knew then what we know now, he wouldn't have done it." But Schwarzenegger himself has avoided the topic since entering the race to recall Gov. Gray Davis.
His record in combating steroid use is not encouraging. The first time he had a government platform was as chair of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports under George H.W. Bush, whom he had campaigned for in the 1988 election. While Schwarzenegger denounced steroids during that period, it wasn't central to his message as he toured the country and encouraged kids to exercise more. He often had to be prompted on the subject of steroids, even while youth usage rates across the country were tripling in the wake of the Ben Johnson steroid revelations at the Seoul Olympics.
Even a few members of the drug-soaked bodybuilding community, which generally regards Arnold as a deity, acknowledge his lack of leadership on the issue. Jeff Everson, a former editor of Muscle & Fitness magazine, wrote last year in the magazine Planet Muscle, "When was the last time Arnold ... appeared before Congress asking for help and support in stopping the horrible steroid use by all bodybuilders?"
He wasn't just another steroid user, like Bill Clinton was just another dope non-inhaler. Arnold helped father the culture of steroids. He contributed to the super-sizing of athletes in this country as much or more than Johnson, Alzado, Brian Bosworth, Mark Gastineau, Jose Canseco or any other chemically buff sweat laborer that later came along. While Schwarzenegger may not have truly come from the sports world, bodybuilding is within the same universe, and he exerted a powerful gravitational force on mainstream athletes during the 1970s and '80s.
Before 1969, when Arnold arrived in the U.S., steroid use was rare in pro and college sports.
Even weightlifting was considered exotic back then. Mike Katz, a taxi squad lineman for the New York Jets of the Joe Namath era, recalls that only two other teammates trained with weights. Katz had to go outside the team to find decent equipment -- the Jets' workout facility consisted of nothing more than a primitive device akin to a "metal shock absorber on a car" that would be connected to the goal posts and then adjusted for resistance. Coaches considered him "muscle-bound," a term rarely used anymore.
"The Jets didn't have shoulder pads to fit me," said Katz, who was also a bodybuilder at the time and worked out with Schwarzenegger during the summers at Gold's Gym in Santa Monica, Calif. "I had to go back to my college at Southern Connecticut State and get my pads, which had been specially made for me.
"Then in the 1970s there was an explosion of weight training, due to Arnold."
Schwarzenegger won Mr. Olympia, the most prestigious title in bodybuilding, every year from 1970 to '75 and then again in '80 after coming out of retirement. But it wasn't just the string of victories that compelled young men to take notice; it was the conquering, hyper-masculine persona he had created for himself. And it was those glistening, 22-inch biceps that boys and young men stared at as intently as Arnold himself did on stage.
Steve Courson was an undersized defensive lineman at the University of South Carolina in 1974 when Schwarzenegger told Barbara Walters, "I take steroids because they help me an extra 5 percent. Women take the [contraception] pill. They are somewhat similar. I do it under a doctor's supervision." Around that time, Sports Illustrated also helped bring Schwarzenegger to middle America with a feature on the Austrian Oak.
"Watching him, we all were impressed," said Courson, who won two Super Bowl championships with the Pittsburgh Steelers and later suffered health problems from heavy steroid use. "At the time, his comments on steroids were interesting to me because that's when I started to take the drugs.
"He redefined the image of the male athletic body type. Through his intelligent use of training and drugs, he presented an imposing physical figure that had not been seen before."
Canseco came along a decade later, as a promising high school baseball player in Miami.
"Arnold broke the mold," said Canseco, who came to admire Schwarzenegger through his on-screen roles. "I remember his first Conan movie (in 1982). He was a huge, monstrous figure on screen. Back in high school, I wasn't yet into weightlifting. Arnold had a major influence on everybody."
In the Oakland A's locker room of the 1980s, Canseco and McGwire would help bring biceps to baseball. Canseco worked out religiously, while also using steroids.
Even today, columns by and retro photos of Schwarzenegger are a regular presence in the handful of muscle magazines that mainstream athletes read for inspiration. More than 100 times since 1967 -- including at least eight times in the past four years -- those mags have placed him on their cover. J-Lo should be so blessed by the celebrity rags.
You won't find Schwarzenegger or other bodybuilders endorsing steroids in those physique bibles. Doesn't matter. The photos of otherworldly bodies and endorsements for "anabolic-like" supplements are suggestive enough. A survey published in U.S. News & World Report a decade ago found that 57 percent of teen steroid users said they were influenced to use steroids by reading the muscle mags.
Despite the crown once given him by Bush, Schwarzenegger represents mass, not fitness. He conceded as much to Oui magazine in 1977, saying, "I'm a competitive bodybuilder; I'm not training just to be healthy. Ninety-five percent of the people training with weights are into this health thing, and it's a different mentality entirely. As far as I'm concerned, it's bullshit; otherwise I wouldn't drink. I make my protein drink with whiskey. People think I'm crazy, but that's the way I am. I get stoned, I do my own thing."
His tune changed when he became fitness chief, his entrée into politics.
Not everyone familiar with the steroids issue is ready to call Schwarzenegger the driving force in creating the drug culture that now permeates American sports. "He's one piece in the puzzle," said Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor of sports science. But is there any larger piece? Schwarzenegger's impact on attitudes about muscle has been both broad-based, through his movies, and niche, through his status as a rock star in the influential bodybuilding community. He hit society both high and low, and mainstream athletes filled the middle.
Rick Wayne, a retired bodybuilding champion who trained with Schwarzenegger, argues that his former rival should not be judged harshly because today's bodybuilders take much more sophisticated and powerful drugs. "He was taking about two pills of Dianabol a week," he said. "That's nothing." Other training partners have said Schwarzenegger took copious amounts of steroids. But let's assume Wayne knows the truth. Is the historical significance of Henry Ford diminished because a 2003 Mustang would blow the doors off a Model T?
Schwarzenegger, in past interviews, has claimed that he broke no laws when taking steroids (Wayne says Arnold told him once that he started taking them at age 13 in Austria; Arnold claims he started taking them after arriving in the U.S.). Prior to 1990, when the federal government made the drugs a controlled substance, there was nothing illegal about doctors writing steroid prescriptions for athletic purposes. However, taking drugs to enhance sports performance has been considered unethical since the late '60s. Schwarzenegger, like bodybuilding itself, merely pioneered the path of win-at-all-costs.
Maybe you've heard that phrase lately in football and baseball circles. Maybe even on the high school level.
"If you're like me, you don't want your children or grandchildren to stockpile drugs just so they can play sports," Pound said.
You could argue that steroids are a non-issue among California voters, who elected Schwarzenegger to fix other problems. Maybe, but with youth usage rates up across the country, federal legislators are on alert again. Last month, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., introduced a bill that would ramp up penalties for steroids traffickers and prevent the over-the-counter sale of andro and other steroids precursors. The effort is co-sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a longtime friend of Schwarzenegger who formally proposed in July a constitutional amendment to allow non-U.S. born citizens the opportunity to run for president.
Perhaps the chances of Arnold getting behind the drug issue just got a little better.
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.