Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Rousey is right, according to science

I posted this article on steroid use on Facebook the day after UFC 184. It got zero likes, comments, shares, nothing, like it never happened. Following Ronda Rousey's 14-second win against an esteemed and undefeated challenger, the armchair critics rose up in their anonymity to denounce Rousey for fighting someone other than Cristiane "Cyborg" Justino. Cyborg is a known steroid user in another fight promotion, who fights a whole weight class higher than Rousey. Rousey calls steroid use cheating, and the science behind the issue is relevant for even amateur athletes like myself. I beg you to humor me to the bottom of the page, and to click at least one of the links below, the second of which is a peer-reviewed paper at the National Institutes of Health.

Once You’ve Used Steroids, Is It Possible to Ever Compete Clean Again?
Skeletal muscle morphology in power-lifters with and without anabolic steroids.

The fulcrum on which the Rousey v Cyborg story hinges is that the UFC has begun regular testing of all its athletes following numerous test failures by prominent fighters. Cyborg's fans maintain that she hasn't failed a steroid test since 2011, and should be considered "clean". There is this notion in so many sports that if a former steroid user is suspended or passes tests for some feels-right length of time, they will revert to "normal" and be fair competition again among their peers.

This notion is naive and not supported by science. The truth is that there is no suspension, no time out, that returns steroid-modified muscle and bone to its original design. The science shows that steroid use causes permanent changes in muscle fibers at the cellular level. Steroid use under resistance training causes muscle growth, including multiplication of the nuclei that govern protein synthesis for healing and future growth. And, this nuclei count does not go away for "several years", according to Eriksson and colleagues. A former user can return to training years later, and their muscle fibers will respond to training more intensely than an unmodified athlete.

Ed: I don't want to say a "non-user", as that implies that non-using is the exception and requires a label. The human condition is not to use, and the term "athlete" should suffice. PED users are welcome to prepend "modified, enhanced, or altered", as they deserve to be labeled as the exception.

Suspensions cost money and time, but time does not make the athlete normal again. The muscle sports acknowledge the issue with "natural-only" competitions that have strict testing. Olympic weightlifting presumes to be drug-free, though public testimony from Russian and Chinese athletes shows this presumption to be a comic failure. But what of collision sports like American football and mixed martial arts, where the ability to inflict and avoid damage like a comic book hero is the point of the competition?

At what length of suspension do we presume that an athlete won't resume their artificial training response and regain the exact physical condition that was suspended in the first place? Science says this question is rhetorical and has no suitable answer.

At what length of suspension do we allow combat and collision athletes to bring their heavier bone structure and hyperactive muscle tissue back into the game and call it "a fair fight" against unmodified opponents? The damage being inflicted and absorbed puts at risk not only success, but life and livelihood.

I don't fault Rousey one iota for demanding an ordinary human, female opponent, but let's bring this back down to you and me and amateur sports. Kettlebell sport does have rules against PED use and does conduct drug tests. This is relevant to me for more than one medical reason (see the story of UGA football tackle Kolton Houston), as I am a middle-aged male with a significant injury history. The time may come when my doctor blames my stagnant health on low testosterone, or warns that my exercise and sports are at risk because my injuries won't heal. So the thought actually crosses my mind.

If I were to find myself in that condition, T-therapy could change my life. Steroids don't make lazy people huge; steroids help people heal and grow from rigorous exercise. The cost of that resilience is the forfeiture of organized competition at any serious level. Honestly though, if I found myself in poor enough health to need endocrine assistance to function, I should give up competitive sports. It would be a quality of life issue, and in that context, this research is useful news for the rest of us.

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