New documentary takes frank look at steroids use in sports

Rather than do the expected and condemn drug use, 'Bigger, Stronger, Faster' questions America's value system.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    In training: Bodybuilder 'Big Will' Harris displays his sculpted torso to director Christopher Bell, who once used steroids himself and takes a fresh look at their use and abuse.
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Growing up in the 1980s, Christopher Bell and his two brothers idolized Sly Stallone, Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their bigger-than-life heroes seemed to embody the American ideal – work hard, play fair, and come out a winner.

But when the pudgy brothers from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., began to pursue their dreams of sports success, Bell says, they discovered the real American ideal is winning, whatever the cost. For these brothers, that included using steroids.

In "Bigger, Stronger, Faster," Bell – a University of Southern California film school grad, onetime competitive powerlifter, and writer for WWE (the former World Wrestling Federation) – turns the camera on his family to grapple with America's love-hate relationship with performance-enhancing drugs.

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Interweaving his family's story with pop culture icons, archival footage, and a wealth of interviews with congressmen, doctors, trainers, and professional athletes (including record-setting sprinter Ben Johnson who was stripped of his 1988 Olympic medals after testing positive for steroids), Bell's film takes aim at the question: Is steroid use by so many of our sports heroes a problem unique to athletes, or is it a sign of a much bigger cultural issue?

Last month, he spoke to the Monitor at the Seattle International Film Festival.

You've said you wanted to find a context for steroid use and seem to do that through the use of archival footage in the movie.

I love how [Ronald] Reagan used to incorporate [in his speeches] the Olympics and Rambo, and the muscle of America, and being a superpower. It's part of the whole psyche of America. We live in a country that calls itself a superpower, yet we're surprised that people take steroids. There's a clash in America between doing the right thing and being the best.

Your film suggests that the health risks of steroids have been overblown in the media. How has the antisteroid community reacted to the film?

It's interesting. The Ad Council [which produces public service advertising] is doing a steroid awareness campaign. I flew to Denver to meet with them and talk about it because they don't see my film as a pro-steroid movie. I don't see it as a pro-steroid movie either. I see it as a movie that explores the issue from all sides.

Has the baby boomer embrace of performance enhancers like human growth hormone to prevent the effects of aging changed the steroid debate?

There definitely is a turnaround. People try to separate that use from the same drugs that people use to cheat in sports. A lot of people don't even make the connection. They'll say, "I'm not on steroids. I'm taking testosterone."

You also take aim at the health supplement industry and the images they use to sell their products. Are they selling unrealistic expectations?

My buddy Christian [Boeving], who's shown with his shirt off [modeling for ads] on the beach, is what we are expected to look like as men. We're pitched that every day. What we don't know is a lot of these guys are on steroids or [have been] cosmetically enhanced.

Even though your research found that the medical risks of steroids seem to be exaggerated, you remain uncomfortable with the idea of using a performance enhancer yourself. Why?

We've made it a moral issue, whether or not it's cool to enhance your performance. We put some of the effects aside — and that's not to say there are no health effects, or side effects; these are powerful hormones and they should be regulated by doctors, however, the moral issue comes out in the fact they've been made illegal and demonized by a lot of the media. That stigma is going to always be around. I didn't want to be lumped in with that.

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