SPENCER MICHELS: Four men accused of distributing anabolic steroids to top athletes pleaded not guilty in federal court in San Francisco today. After parading a series of athletes before a grand jury in San Francisco last fall, the federal government announced the indictments yesterday on charges the men conspired to distribute the steroids.
The defendants were allegedly tied to Balco, the bay area laboratory cooperative, which federal agents searched in September. The firm makes and supplies nutritional supplements and was suspected of developing a new hard-to-detect steroid called THG. Among those indicted were Balco's founder and the trainer for San Francisco Giants home run hitter Barry Bonds.
In the U.S. synthetic steroids are illegal unless prescribed by a doctor for medical reasons. Mostly available via the Internet or on the black market, anabolic steroids are chemicals related to the male hormone testosterone. When injected or ingested, they build muscle and increase strength.
While there are no accurate studies of how many people are on steroids, body builders and athletes are reported to use them frequently. But the athletes were not the main target of this investigation. And that's important, according to San Jose Mercury News sports writer Elliott Almond, who has covered steroid scandals for 20 years.
ELLIOTT ALMOND: It was one of the first times that the drug testers in Olympic sport or in sport, instead of going after just the athlete, they went after the supplier. They feel that if they can bring some of these mavericks down, that the athletes then won't have a place to go.
SPENCER MICHELS: The investigation began when a used syringe containing some residue arrived anonymously in June at the UCLA Olympic analytical laboratory in Los Angeles. This lab, the only U.S. lab accredited by the International Olympic Committee, is where scientists figured out what the substance was, the new steroid THG, and eventually how to detect it.
Don Catlin, an M.D. and molecular pharmacologist, has been the lab's director since it opened 22 years ago. Using a computerized machine that recognizes most steroids using electronic "fingerprints," his lab searches through samples of urine taken from athletes.
DR. DONALD CATLIN: We know all the fingerprints and we've programmed the computer to go search for each and every one.
SPENCER MICHELS: But the lab's equipment doesn't recognize designer steroids like THG, manufactured specifically to produce the most muscle growth.
DR. DONALD CATLIN: You take a steroid that exists, and you twiddle around with the molecule a little bit so that it's not the same, and that can make it undetectable or we don't know where it is. We don't know how to find it in the urine.
SPENCER MICHELS: Newly created steroids pose a challenge.
DR. DONALD CATLIN: THG is a whole new chapter. It's telling us that after 20 years of fighting the battle, there are still people out there who are bound and determined to figure out ways to beat the system.
SPENCER MICHELS: Catlin and other argue that steroids are unfair to athletes who don't use them. But steroids are also decried as dangerous to the user's health. At a sports medicine clinic near San Francisco, Dr. William Ross admits it is difficult to quantify the health risks, but he knows they exist, and he occasionally sees them.
DR. WILLIAM ROSS: If we take them in huge amounts, then it can cause high blood pressure, fluid retention, acne, hair loss. In women it tends to masculinize them, make them more like a male. And, interestingly, in men it tends to give them a higher voice and growth of breasts. It shrinks the testicles. It can create liver injury and, very rarely, can cause liver cancer.
SPOKESPERSON: Champion, Karl List.
SPENCER MICHELS: Karl List, a personal trainer who used to be a competitive body builder, used steroids on and off to bulk himself up.
KARL LIST: I never really experienced any real physical side effects except for the growth, OK? And since stopping their use, everything's been fine and normal.
SPENCER MICHELS: List said he used the steroids because his competitors did, and they worked.
KARL LIST: The most I ever squatted in my lifetime, drug-free, was 600 pounds. The most I ever squatted on drugs was 200 pounds more, was 800 pounds. So, I mean, you're talking about probably a 15 to 20 percent gain in just raw strength.
SPENCER MICHELS: List and many others are convinced the chemicals are easy to come by at gyms and elsewhere and that athletes believe they are necessary to compete at the highest levels.
KARL LIST: Even though the stigma may be higher than it's ever been, I think there's a widespread use that's bigger than it's ever been.
SPENCER MICHELS: The government said the four men indicted were meticulous in their planning and their efforts to avoid being caught. In court today, they were released on their own recognizance. A bail hearing is slated for the end of February.