It's no surprise that anabolic steroids have been at the forefront of controversy over the past few years. After all, some say the drugs have ruined professional sports and continue to pose a threat to America's youth. But is it possible that there could be a flip side to the argument? Director Chris Bell dares to ask that very question in his new documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster.
MF: Bigger, Stronger, Faster doesn't conclude that steroids are evil or dangerous, which is how the media generally portrays the performance-enhancing drugs. What is your personal opinion about them?
Chris Bell: I don't think it's good to rely on drugs for anything, whether it's for performance or the way you look or anything else for that matter. But we do find that testosterone and human growth hormones have health benefits as far as possibly prolonging our lives or giving us a better quality of life in general. But I don't think they should be allowed in sports because we have to adhere to the fact of fair play. But the problem with fair play is that they don't have a test for human-growth hormone—that's what makes the issue so complex. You want to say don't do it. But when there's no test for it, why would anyone not do it?
Pro bodybuilder Gregg Valentino. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.
You interviewed everyone from Gregg Valentino (the guy with the world's largest arms) to top Washington legislators for this film. Who surprised you most?
I was most surprised by Henry Waxman [chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee]. I went to his office to ask him about the congressional hearings that he held on steroid use. He couldn't answer a single question on the topic without asking his assistant. That fascinates me how the people making the laws sometimes don't know what they're talking about—that's tough to swallow.
Do you think guys who use steroids have a skewed self-image?
There's a real body dysmorphic problem in America. Guys want to get ripped and have six-pack abs. I was always a power-lifter but I live in L.A. where everybody is shredded, so it's somewhat of a body image thing for me. I asked myself, 'Should I use steroids to get there?' But it was always a moral issue for me since steroids are illegal.
You've admitted to using steroids but decided it wasn't something you wanted to continue taking. Do you think there's a chance you'll use them again as you get older?
One of the reasons I did this film was to make people aware that we need more research into these drugs. As far as for myself, I would use them if they were medically-prescribed to me by a doctor. If I start sagging and feeling sluggish then absolutely—it would be just like taking Viagra or any other quality-of-life drug. I don't see any problem with that.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster brings to light the steroid use among celebs and pro wrestlers as well. Knowing what you know, do you still enjoy watching Rocky movies and wrestling today?
Absolutely. All these guys were my heroes when I was growing up, and I don't look down on them for what they've done. I was just disappointed when I was a kid to find out that everything that I believed wasn't really true. But as an adult, I'm more aware of it. I'm not going to be crushed if I find out some guy is using steroids. But I also think it's become so wide spread nowadays that it's hard to define who is using them. Even some Hollywood actors use steroids, guys who aren't necessarily big, just ripped.
What do you think of the media crucifying guys like Barry Bonds?
Look, if Barry Bonds is older and his levels have gone down and he's using steroids or growth hormones, the fact of the matter is it's still against the rules of the game. It's an unfair advantage to use steroids because steroids absolutely work and they work to a degree that we see people shattering records like Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson did back in 1988 [Johnson was later disqualified for doping].
Jay Cutler and Chris Bell. Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.
Most of the people you interviewed were very open about their steroid use. Why were they so candid with you, putting their reputations, and in some cases, their careers at risk?
I would say that has to do with trust. A lot of the people I talked to I've known for a long time, but I think that my strength as a filmmaker is really is just talking to people and listening to people. My mom always taught me to be a good listener and let people speak their minds and say what they want to say. It might also have something to do with the way I look. I'm 5-foot-6, 225 pounds and I bench-press 500 pounds, so they look at me as just another gym rat and they identify with that.
Is steroid use as prevalent in other countries as it is in the U.S.?
In the U.S., all of our heroes are sports figures and big action stars, so naturally we're a culture that's going to be more about physical image. As for other countries, I know in Mexico you can buy steroids over the counter in supermarkets, but it doesn't seem to be a problem there because their culture doesn't focus as much on physical image. A lot of the locals in Mexico told me that public image has more to do with how much money you make instead of your physical image. That's not necessarily the case here in the U.S.—self-image is a big factor here.
In your film, you touch on former NFL defensive end Lyle Alzado's steroid use and question whether or not it contributed to his death. Personally, do you think there was a connection?
It's hard to say. He used hormones harvested from human cadavers, which could have been something that led to a brain tumor, but no one is sure of that. As far as anabolic steroids and testosterone goes, there's no link whatsoever between testosterone and brain tumors, so I don't think it had anything to do with his death. A lot of people think AIDS killed Lyle Alzado, but we can't really prove that. Even Lyle's own doctor came out later on and said his death wasn't because of steroids.
Alzado was once quoted as saying that "steroids are addictive." Would you agree with that statement?
I think steroids breed addictive behavior, but I don't think the drugs are physically addictive. Basically, the reason people take steroids is that they want to get bigger and look better, and when steroids work you want to stay bigger and continue to look better—that's where the addictive qualities come in.
You were able to dig up documentation that proved some Olympic athletes who tested positive for banned substances in the 1980s were later allowed to compete. Do you believe the Olympics are still corrupt in regard to drug screening?
Absolutely. We're going to have one of the biggest Olympics in years this summer in China and that's where all the drugs actually come from. There is no test for human growth hormone. The test for EPO (Erythropoietin) can be easily manipulated, as can tests for testosterone, so I think we're definitely going to have athletes using drugs in the Olympics and I don't know if any of them will get caught. They know how to pass the tests.
A power-lifting scene from Bigger, Stronger, Faster.
Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures.
Do you believe steroids for the purpose of physique and performance enhancement will ever be made legal?
There's not a lot of research in terms of the possible depression that follows coming off of steroids, so I don't know if they should be made legal in terms of being sold over-the-counter. They're very powerful hormones. As far as going to the doctor and having them prescribe something to help you get in shape and feel better, I don't see that as being much different than plastic surgery, as long as it's safe and medically approved. We've seen drugs such as Viox linked to the death of thousands of people. Testosterone has been on the market since 1933 and it's never been taken off. Is it dangerous? Is it killing people? If it were, wouldn't the government have taken it off the market?
Bigger, Stronger, Faster is in theaters now.