On Saturday, my friend Brom and I saw Bigger, Stronger, Faster, a documentary on the steroid culture (There was a subtitle on the movie, too, something with an asterisk, an ode to Barry Bonds in the MLB record books, I imagine). It was a very interesting take on the whole performance-enhancing drug culture in this country. So interesting that it kind of made me sad because it threw everything i ever thought about steroid users into disarray.
Here's the lowdown: Chris Bell, the filmmaker, was a wannabe body-builder, one of three body-building brothers, and the only one not regularly using steroids. his brother Mike "Mad Dog" Bell was one of those wrestlers who would regularly get beaten up by guys like The Undertaker every week. Don't remember him? That's okay, that was his role. Sometimes those guys broke through (author and crazy guy Mick Foley started out that way), but Mike Bell never did, and yet he still has this dream that he can, even though he is well into his 30's. Because of this dream he refuses to let die, he stays on the juice so he can keep his physique.
Youngest brother, "Stinky," is a champion weight-lifter, who is shown in the film bench-pressing over 700 pounds, while his older brother, Chris, is shown benching 13o pounds less. They are both huge, scary dudes. The difference? "Stinky" is openly using steroids, while Chris abstains for moral reasons. This is where it gets interesting.
The moral issue is the one touched on the most. The film establishes early on that steroids have only been known to cause about 3 deaths in this country, far less than alcohol or cigarettes, which are legal to consenting adults. Still, the idea that professional athletes are doping, in effect cheating, with banned substances is enough to bring Congress into it. Mind you, in 2005, they spent more time talking to current and former baseball players than they did deliberating the war in Iraq and health care, but hey, the kiddies can't be looking up to cheaters now can they?
But wait, the film also brings up the fact that the term "performance-enhancing" is a bit skewed. Tiger Woods got laser eye surgery so he could see the hole better. His vision is about as perfect as you can get. Isn't that enhancing his performance? There are tons of vitamins and supplements that are not banned substances that are available at your local GNC that the FDA doesn't even need to approve in order for them to be sold (Bell even makes his own right in his kitchen, bottles and all.) They help athletes train harder, run faster, hit the ball farther, essentially enhancing their performance. Why are these things legal and steroids are not? because Lyle Alzado died of a brain tumor that was attributed to steroids? Is that it? Because I'm pretty sure Lyle was probably a coke head, too.
The problem is that since steroids are not "legal" (despite the fact that you can convince a chiropractor to tell your doctor that your testosterone was low and you should be on them, as Chris Benoit probably did), nobody has really done a study on the long-term effects of them. They just decided they were bad and said don't use them. But wait? Isn't aspirin used the wrong way bad? Isn't chocolate pretty bad when eaten in great quantities?
This is what the film gets at, and this is what makes me kind of sad. I used to know that Barry Bonds was a cheater and a liar and a jerk and I wanted him to rot in jail for the rest of his life. I think I still do, but now there is a little bit of doubt. I mean, he obviously cheated and lied to Congress about it, so yeah, he should go to jail for perjury, if nothing else, but that's kind of like putting Capone away for not paying his taxes. The real question is did he really do anything wrong. Mark McGwire did it. Sammy Sosa did it. Jason Giambi did it. Jose Canseco brags that he did it. Roger Clemens vehemently denies he did, but he probably is lying. The Governor of California did it. Rambo did it. They all wanted to compete at the highest level possible, so they took something that enhanced their physique, something that wasn't really seen as all that bad, especially back in the day. So, what's the big deal? That's the mantra of the steroid culture. "Hey, everyone is doing it. if you want to stay on top, you have to do what they're doing." David Wells admits to being drunk when he pitched his perfect game, should he have an asterisk after his name in the record book, too? Kevin Millar admits that all of the Red Sox took a shot before they beat the Yankees in '04. Should we give the trophy to New York? Did the alcohol enhance their performance? I'll say this, it probably took the edge off.
Anyway, even though it made me question my beliefs (which is what a good documentary should do), I recommend this movie, not only to sports fans, but Americans in general. If you can find it somewhere at a local theater, make it your business instead of spending ten bucks on some crappy action flick. You won't regret it.