Mike Tyson and Steroids

tyson-at-13This is a picture of Mike Tyson at age 13. Or at least that’s what the Daily Mail says. I’m skeptical because I sure as hell have never seen a 13 year old that looks like that.

Here’s Mike at 14. Still big, but maybe a little more reasonable:

tyson-at-14By that point, he’d already been boxing for two years. At the age of 12, he was able to bench more than 200 pounds:

At 12, Tyson was arrested for purse snatching and sent to the Tryon School for Boys. He soon met Bobby Stewart, a counselor and former boxer who saw in Tyson a pugnacious kid who had grown to 200 pounds and could bench press more than his weight.

The most popular “explanation” is that Mike Tyson is some sort of genetic freak. He just had a lot of natural potential and that’s why he looks like that. In general, though, the phrase “because genetics” sounds a lot like “because magic.”

What’s more likely: Tyson was a kid with a one-in-a-million natural muscular physique, or that he was on the juice? I would give someone 10 to 1 odds that Mike used steroids at least some point in his professional career, and maybe as young as the age of 13.

This is even less surprising if we consider the rates at which teenagers are abusing sex hormones. From the Palo Alto Medical Foundation:

Five to 12 percent of male high school students and 1 percent of female students have used anabolic steroids by the time they are seniors. But, you know, still. Steroids at 13? Ah, but you forget Mike’s background:

Tyson, now 47 and retired, described his ferocious appetite for drink and drugs that dated back to trying cocaine at the age of 11 and first being given alcohol as a baby in New York.

So, even at age 11, Mike wasn’t a stranger to hard drugs. I’m willing to concede, though, that Mike might not have abused steroids in his early teens. Perhaps the two pictures above are taken at a flattering angle, dated incorrectly, or something else.

That said, I’m still confident that Mike was on the juice at some point in his professional career. From Wikipedia:

By 1990, Tyson seemed to have lost direction, and his personal life was in disarray amidst reports of less vigorous training prior to the Douglas match… Contrary to reports that Tyson was out of shape, sources noted his pronounced muscles, absence of body fat and weight of 220 and 12 pounds, only two pounds more than he had weighed when he beat Michael Spinks 20 months earlier.

So, I’m supposed to believe that he was 220 pounds of lean muscle at a mere 5’10”? Give me a break. These stats are not attainable without performance enhancing drugs. (Although, certainly, one might argue that Iron Mike was not that lean.)

Oh, and don’t get me started on drug testing:

Confessing he had taken “blow” and “pot” before the bout, he said: “I had to use my whizzer, which was a fake penis where you put in someone’s clean urine to pass your drug test.”

Or get this. Here’s what Mike had to say when asked, “What would you do differently if you could start training all over again?”

Growth hormones. I would’ve used the growth hormones like the rest of the athletes.

Here he is in another interview:

No, no. All the fighters are on it, the ones that can afford it are on it. That’s my opinion only, I haven’t seen nobody do it but it’s common knowledge.

Steroid usage in the large

Now, I want to step back for a moment. My goal here is not to pick on Mike Tyson, who possesses a certain je ne sais quoi, but:

In pursuit of my second point, consider that the livelihoods of star athletes are dependent on their ability not only to perform, but their ability to perform better than everyone else. Albert Pujols 10-year contract, for instance, is worth $240 million dollars. Alex Rodriguez was the highest paid player in the MLB last season, earning $28 million. The median salary for a MLB player, in contrast, is around a million. We’re talking a $27 million dollar incentive to find some sort of undetectable super drug that transforms a median player into the best player.

And that’s just baseball. Forbes’ list of the top paid athletes has about 25 players in golf, tennis, football, even cricket, earning more.

How powerful are performance enhancing drugs?

Of course, it’s not at all obvious that steroids can transform someone from a pretty good baseball player into one of the best. Perhaps, you might think, steroids are not all that effective. The New York Department of Health would have us believe that “[S]teroids cannot improve an athlete’s agility or skill.”

Here’s how an HIV positive man describes testosterone replacement:

At that point I weighed around 165 pounds. I now weigh 185 pounds. My collar size went from a 15 to a 17 12 in a few months; my chest went from 40 to 44. My appetite in every sense of that word expanded beyond measure. Going from napping two hours a day, I now rarely sleep in the daytime and have enough energy for daily workouts and a hefty work schedule. I can squat more than 400 pounds. Depression, once a regular feature of my life, is now a distant memory. An HIV patient like the essayist above would probably inject between 150 to 200mg every two weeks. The higher end of that range would bring someone to the top of the typical male level. A first steroid cycle for an athlete might be around 1000mg ever two weeks — more than four times as much.

But what does that translate to, you know, physically? A common myth spread by gearheads who really out to know better says:

Gear [steroids] is not a magical pill. It makes hard work more rewarding, it doesn’t give results for doing nothing. But how about some evidence? Okay!

One study placed men into four groups: exercise with testosterone, exercise with placebo, no exercise with testosterone, and no exercise with placebo. The findings? Men who injected testosterone gained strength and lean muscle mass even without exercise:

Among the men in the no-exercise groups, those given testosterone had greater increases than those given placebo in muscle size in their arms (mean [±SE] change in triceps area, 424±104 vs. -81±109 mm2) and legs (change in quadriceps area, 607±123 vs. -131±111 mm2) and greater increases in strength in the bench-press (9±4 vs. -1±1 kg) and squatting exercises (16±4 vs. 3±1 kg).

Dudes not exercising added 20 pounds to their bench press, while those that exercised and juiced added 50 pounds.

Here’s another study:

Increase in one-repetition maximum leg press strength averaged 17.2% with testosterone alone, 17.4% with resistance training alone, and 26.8% with testosterone + resistance training. To put it another way, sitting around and doing nothing while on testosterone will make you as strong as people who actually train with weights. (These subjects were dosed with 1000mg weekly.)

And that’s just vanilla testosterone. We aren’t even talking about the fun steroids, like trenbolone, which is used to fatten up livestock but much loved by bodybuilders everywhere. It’s literally a steroid intended for bulls — you know, giant muscly cows with horns and shit.

Lest you think I’m citing too much from non-athlete populations, from a review of the use in athletes:

Strength gains of about 5–20% of the initial strength and increments of 2–5kg bodyweight, that may be attributed to an increase of the lean body mass, have been observed.

Rademacher et al. reported one study not reporting strength improvements are that in male canoeists, 6 weeks of Oral-Turinabol administration improved strength and performance measured by canoe ergometry with 6% and 9%, respectively. At the 2012 men’s 1000m kayak single, 6% performance more than separates a last from first place finish, and kayaking is not even a strength sport.

I should point out, too, that one additional benefit of steroid use is that they reduce recovery time and thus training time. Ignoring the performance benefits, an Olympian would still take steroids, as it would allow them to train maybe twice as often as an opponent not on them.

The prevalence of performance enhancing drugs among elite athletes

So, we’ve established that:

So what does the actual rate of steroid use among the athletic population look like?

From one anonymous survey: > From the athletes questioned, a number of 64 (85.33%) accepted that they did take doping pharmacological substances.

From an evaluation of doping among Italian athletes: > Over 10% of athletes indicated a frequent use of amphetamines or anabolic steroids at national or international level, fewer athletes mentioning blood doping (7%) and beta-blockers (2%) or other classes of drugs.

Another anonymous response found that 7% of athletes admitted to doping, in contrast to the .81% caught by testing:

Official doping tests only reveal 0.81% (n = 25,437; 95% CI: 0.70–0.92%) of positive test results, while according to RRT 6.8% (n = 480; 95% CI: 2.7–10.9%) of our athletes confessed to having practiced doping (z = 2.91, p = 0.004).

From a confidential survey of former NFL players:

The high-water mark for steroid use occurred in the 1980s, when about one in every five players, 20.3 percent, said they had tried the drugs. Use declined in the 1990s and beyond to 12.7 percent of players, the researchers reported.

I’m a bit skeptical that the 10% figure is useful as anything other than a lower bound. If you just ask people at the gym about their steroid use, for instance, you get much higher rates: > 160 responses were received, a 53.3% response rate. Of the 160, 62 admitted having taken steroids (38.8%).

The Tour de France, for instance, has abuse rates much higher than 10%:

Scientists estimated at least 80 percent of riders in the grand tours of France, Spain and Italy were manipulating their blood. It became as routine as “saying we have to have air in our tires or water in our bottles,” Armstrong told interviewer Oprah Winfrey this January, when he finally confessed, after years of lawyer-backed denials, that he doped for all seven of his Tour wins from 1999-2005.

The NY Times reports that more than a third of top finishers have been caught. The actual abuse rates must be higher.

Since 1998, more than a third of the top finishers of the Tour de France have admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs in their careers or have been officially linked to doping.

What’s a man to believe?

So, what are the actual abuse rates among elite athletes? My subjective feeling is more than 10 percent and probably less than 70. I suspect that most athletes have tried them at least once, but chronic use is probably less — maybe around 30 percent, but I’m uncertain. Given that those at the top experience both more pressure and enhanced performance, I suspect that the best players make up a disproportionate portion of abusers.

If you enjoyed this, check out the movie Pumping Iron!

You've read this far⁠—want more?

Subscribe and I'll e-mail you updates along with the ideas that I don't share anywhere else.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.