The importance of testosterone for athletic performance (especially when it comes to strength based activities) only started to be understood in the late 19th, early 20th century. But the desire to find ways to improve athletic performance has been a natural human drive since at least the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece.
If you’re curious about the history of steroids and how the world of sports changed with the introduction of anabolic steroids, keep reading for a brief overview of that history.
The History of The Discovery of Steroids
Back before people had any idea about testosterone or how muscle was built, Olympic athletes would often eat the raw testicles of various animals in an effort to boost their athletic abilities.
Although that probably doesn’t sound appealing and though they had no idea it was the testosterone content in those raw testicles that was making the difference, those athletes noticed that this unappetizing trick seemed to help.
In the mid 19th century, a German scientist tried to figure out what the role of testicles were (beyond their apparent sexual function). He experimented on birds by castrating them and found that when the testicles were removed, the birds’ masculine traits started to disappear. This scientist still did not know that it was the testosterone hormone that was the key but he had narrowed it down to the right glands.
Gradually, scientists discovered hormones and the different effects that different hormones had but it wasn’t until 1931 when yet another German scientist started to experiment with chemistry to figure out if he could extract or synthesize a hormone for use as medicine.
By 1939, the two German scientists who worked together to develop synthetic anabolic steroids won a Nobel Prize for their achievement. Soon after, steroid use grew more and more wide spread, especially in sports.
A Timeline of Steroid Usage in Sports
At the beginning, anabolic steroid use in sports was perfectly legal and accepted. From the 40s through to the 70s, it was pretty much standard routine for athletes to use steroids as part of their training routine.
At this time, if you weren’t using steroids, you were holding yourself back. This was especially true of weight lifters and Olympic athletes who were under high pressure to be the absolute best of the best in the entire world.
And when the entire world is taking advantage of the performance enhancing effects of steroids, your chances of being a gold medal winner were slim to none if you weren’t using them to enhance your own performance.
However, the tide began to turn in 1967. In that year, the International Olympic Council decided to ban the use of anabolic steroids. Many other sports leagues began to follow suit. Despite the ban, actually testing for steroid use was not yet a thing. They were pretty much working on an honor system.
That, too, changed in 1972 when the International Olympic Council officially began testing all athletes for steroid usage. They did this by using the Testosterone to Epitestosterone ratio test (T:E test) which tested the balance of testosterone to epitestosterone in the athlete’s urine samples.
This test was thought to be completely effective at detecting steroid use until the 90s when it was finally discovered that East German athletes had been escaping detection for decades by using an epitestosterone supplement shortly before the test to artificially boost their levels, causing the T:E ratio to appear to be at an acceptable level.
It was around this time that the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed in the United States which officially classified anabolic steroids in the controlled substance category so that you could no longer buy steroids legally without a prescription.
The next major event regarding steroids and sports came at the beginning of the new millennium. By the year 2000, Major League Baseball was the only sport left that still did not test its athletes for steroid use.
Many baseball players were using pro-hormone supplements which are different from anabolic steroids because they simply stimulate hormone production rather than actually adding the hormone. However, the difference was lost on media and authorities.
When the news broke that so many baseball players were using pro-hormones, many assumed they were the same as anabolic steroids and it became a scandal. The government soon added these supplements to the list and enforced steroid testing in baseball.
After this most recent scandal, the game of baseball itself changed. During the “steroid era” the game was all about great offense. Impressive batting and record breaking home runs were the name of the game.
Once the government began to crack down, however, such record breaking performances became fewer and farther between. Today, baseball fans appreciate the game as a sort strategy and defense based sport where pitching, catching, and generally stopping runs are the highlights.
While they were first viewed as a major successful breakthrough in athletic performance, steroids soon began to be seen as a form of cheating. There was a push for “natural” athletic performance in professional competitions. It was because of this change in opinion that steroids began to be banned and then made illegal.
The end result is that in the world of professional athletic competitions, truly impressive performances and accomplishments will now forever be held in suspicion. We have seen many cases of strong athletes being tested for steroids after the fact because their exceptional performance was suspected to be too good to be true.