[12 June 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Steroids - the word alone strikes fear in the hearts of sports fans and athletes alike. Thirty years ago, the anabolic hormone replacement therapy was a common, under the counter practice. Everyone from bodybuilders to professional football players hit the ‘juice’ as a means of getting bigger, training harder, and repairing physical damage faster. Such notable superstars as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hulk Hogan admitted to using the substance to gain that all important competitive advantage over others. But somewhere along the last three decades, steroids stopped being subterranean cool. They went from an accepted unspoken supplement to international pariah. In his masterful, sly documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster, former power lifter Chris Bell discusses when he thinks the perception changed, and how little change such renewed awareness has actually brought about.
Bell believes, rightfully or wrongfully, that steroids are immoral. It’s a lesson he learned from his mother, in conjunction with a clear ‘80s kid connection to Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No”. When he learns that his brothers “Mad Dog” Mike and “Smelly” Mark both now use the drugs (as part of a desire to be professional athletes) he goes on a performance enhancement spiritual quest, debunking the myths surrounding the subject while uncovering the causes for its continued demonization. One fact that Bigger, Stronger, Faster (wonderfully subtitled “The Side Effects of Being American”) uncovers is that many of the claims about deaths from steroid use are wildly overstated. While the main medical opponent of the substance continues his rallying cry, two other physicians challenge the lack of actual empirical evidence.
That’s the key to understanding Bell’s position. There is lots of anecdotal ‘proof’ that steroids cause numerous, near fatal side effects, and when combined with other elements in an athlete’s strenuous course of preparation, they may (key word - MAY) hasten death. But it’s compelling to watch the film deconstruct Lyle Alzado’s claims that he died as a result of his 16 years of use (there was never an established link between his brain cancer and the drug) or question Donald Hooton on his conviction that steroids led to his son’s suicide. When confronted with other possibilities, the still grieving father reverts right back to rhetoric, restating a non-scientific link over and over. Bell makes it clear that changing one’s natural body chemistry is dangerous at the very least, but by the end of the film, he’s done a decent job of taking the skull off of steroids mass murderer crossbones.
Sadly, most people will focus on the seemingly pro-steroid message presented here and avoid the more personal problems. It is clear, at least from a contextually lax cinematic standpoint, that Chris’ brother Mike is a mess. After his brief stint as a semi-recognizable wrestling toadie (never a star, but the go to guy when the main event needed a patsy), he seems a broken man. Unable to settle down and longing for a limelight he never really got, he becomes Bigger, Stronger, Faster‘s most fascinating ‘character’. When questioned about his dissatisfaction, he has no real reason for being so unsettled. Later, when it seems his desire to be ‘better than average’ may never work out, Chris again asks about why he can’t be happy just being who he is. The look on Mike’s confused face says it all.
Mark, at least, seems more levelheaded in his pursuit. Recognizing the need to use steroids to compete with others in the pumped up world of power lifting, he makes a fragile agreement with his wife. After one more competition, he will quit. The reason is simply - they want to try and have a second child. Of course, a casual question from Chris reveals that, as of now, the pact is merely temporary. There is a clear undercurrent of addiction at the center of Bigger, Stronger, Faster - both a physical need for users to continue gaining mass, and a psychological edge that’s hard to shake. When the conversation swings around to sports, the concept of fairness is tossed around quite a bit. It seems to circumvent any discussion about the eventual mental and physiological longing involved with prolonged use.
In fact, as the subtitle suggests, Americans are equally part of the performance enhancement junkie culture. Ben Johnson, the Canadian Olympic athlete who was stripped of his gold medal when it was discovered he tested positive for doping, continues to be denounced. But the second place finisher, Carl Lewis, was also found to be cheating…BEFORE the games had started. Yet his results were covered up by the United States so he could compete in Seoul for the Red, White, and Blue. Jose Canseco, the crackpot ‘roid head with a penchant for backing into the truth, is seen as a smarmy savior to a sport that had a future president backing its “chicks dig the long ball” belief system. From Congressmen who are unsure of the laws they supported to high minded pundits proclaiming a knowledge of a substance that few truly understand, Bell argues that, as long as dingers are heading out of ball parks and favored teams are taking home championships, there are not real victims - only victors.
Of course, all of this leads to the crux of Bell’s position - if steroids are so unproven, so contentious in what they can and cannot be linked to, why are they so stigmatized. Again, sportsmanship is brought up, as is that ever popular politicians’ lament of “for the sake of the children”. The filmmaker may not help his case with his Michael Moore meets Morgan Spurlock intrusive irony. When he asks a male model about steroid use, or a porn star about liquid Viagra shot straight into “the source”, we see the point he’s making in obvious, slightly overbearing obviousness. Similarly, the heart-to-hearts with his distraught mother (very religious, she thought she “raised” her boys to be better than this) have no real payoff, the pain shuttled aside for more shots of Arnold and Sly.
In the end, Bigger, Stronger, Faster is not out to compliment or condemn its subjects. All jocks and jocularity aside, there is a strong core element of cultural brainwashing at work within the revelations. It’s now men who suffer from body image issues, the notion that machismo (and resulting sexual attraction) comes only from six-pack abs and bulging pecs permeating the skivvy social structure. Bell himself admits that as the short, fat middle child, bodybuilding was a way of gaining a certain style of acceptance. Now, years later, when none of that really matters, the fascination with physicality remains. Whether it’s for looks or to be the last man standing, it’s clear that somewhere along its trip from tonic to toxin, steroids have been misunderstood. Bell’s documentary may not change that status, but if anyone wants to have a serious discussion about the entire supplement situation, this excellent film is a good place to start.