«My son is 22 and he goes to a gym. For some years, he has been taking substances to increase muscle mass, which has caused rashes and a tendency toward aggression. Tests he underwent recently showed he had a high level of aminases and very high indicators of increased muscle mass. Excessive aminases can damage the pancreas.» This is no exception, but one of many parents who, in the wake of the doping scandal centered on Greek coach Christos Tzekos and his athletes, have called the media and the authorities in a panic, denouncing the distribution of suspect and illegal substances at gyms. In this case, the gym keeps the supplements in a display case and the owners claim they are not responsible, telling parents who have protested: «Whoever wants them, takes them.» At the same time, they say the substances «are certified by the National Pharmaceutical Organization (EOF),» which is patently not the case. The boy’s father watched his son mix the supplements up in a shaker and take them, reassuring his father that «there are capsules and syringes of steroids out there, but I don’t use them.» Building muscles Every town in Greece has a stadium, every neighborhood has a gym, and substances are available everywhere. It is not only an issue for those who take exercise regularly. The neighborhood dope-taker has very modest motives – not to win in competition but to build a physique that stands out. Many customers of the 2,500 gyms in Greece who are keen to bulk up their muscles ask for dietary supplements or substances to help them attain the shape they desire faster. Those who fall prey most easily to the trade in prohibited substances are the bodybuilders, who sometimes use the very risky human growth hormone. Though only around 3 percent of Greeks regularly visit gyms, some 20-25 percent use them occasionally. Attendance figures soar in spring when customers are keen to get in shape for summer, and that is when substances that promise results without effort are more likely to be taken. Not all gyms are to blame, of course. Following the recent fuss over doping, representatives of gym owners said that just a few gyms are involved and that those who partake are fanatical body builders, who number no more than 1,500 in Athens. Yet Greeks gave very different answers in a recent European survey – which shows that the phenomenon of doping worries 72.2 percent of them (compared with the European average of 73.7 percent), as does the excessive use of dietary supplements (30.1 percent of Greeks against the European average of 26.8 percent). It is not by chance that the nickname Doberman is common at Greek gyms. Gym owners admit that selling supplements and other products is motivated not only by profit by avid competition: «If we don’t build up their bodies, they’ll go next door. Anyone who wants to take substances will find them.» Besides, they point out, it isn’t illegal. In a sense they are right, given that most of the products on sale at gyms fall into the murky area of legal oversight. The health hazards are of two types. For a start, as a European Commission study reported in the March 2004 issue of International Journal of Sports Medicine notes, 30 percent of dietary supplements on sale in Europe contain prohibited anabolic steroids. Most of them do not list the dangerous substances, which do the job of building muscles and boosting sales. The second source of danger is excessive dosage. The uncontrolled consumption of proteins, for example, can lead to kidney damage and other health problems. Worse still, promoters of these substances chiefly target young people, many of whom are unaware of the dangers or are easily influenced. And anabolic steroids and other such substances are more harmful to young people because they are more vulnerable and may use them for longer. Another side of the problem concerns children who exercise at sports clubs. The very fact that the Education Ministry has decided to conduct doping inspections at schools is revealing. Recently there have been increasing numbers of complaints that irresponsible coaches and sports doctors have been approaching children who show talent in some sport and promising them and their parents a brilliant career as long as they supplement their diet and get some help from substances. Unfortunately, the reservations of many parents are overcome by assurances that the products are safe and by the lure of athletic progress and a bonus in gaining a university place. A physical education teacher told Kathimerini that he had trouble recognizing his pupils who had been selected for a basketball team when they returned from their summer holidays. «It took just one or two months at the summer camp to make them unrecognizable. They were two heads taller and had really developed into adults. You can’t do that just with good food and training,» he claimed. The findings of an EC study of athletes in seven countries, including 1,500 from Greece, some of them champions, are shocking in that respect. Of the Greeks questioned, 55 percent said they would use anabolic steroids if it improved their chance of winning. It was the highest percentage among the seven countries, yet their other responses showed that they were aware of the health risks of doping. If the Tzekos affair suggests that Greece is copying the American model of championship level athletics, it seems that it is also doing the same at the level of the ordinary athlete. According to recent research in the US, 3-11 percent of all pupils in secondary school have used anabolic steroids. The extraordinary thing is that about one in three of them does not exercise at all but used the substances to improve their physique, make an impression and raise their self-esteem. Body beautiful Idolatry of the body beautiful and identifying it with muscle building, valuing appearance over content and personality, all underrate the most important part of the human body, the brain, leading people to scorn health risks and their subjection to the alchemists of nutritional supplements. Meanwhile, the drug of competition, of victory at all costs, poisons sport and human relations. The results are tragic. How many parents enroll their child in a team hoping to keep them away from drugs, only to discover later that their child is addicted to the drugs of competition? EOF president: ‘I’ve received threats too’ EOF President Dimitris Vayionis spoke to Kathimerini about the need for measures to control the huge market in anabolic steroids. He points out that EOF can do little about other products sold as nutritional supplements. Is there legislation that specifically covers nutritional supplements? Unfortunately not. There is a World Health Organization table defining products containing a certain level of vitamins as medicines. Apart from that, they are considered dietary supplements and may be imported after a simple notification to EOF. What does the notification guarantee? Nothing. Only the vitamins in the product are listed, but it might also contain ephedrine, given that there is no inspection. Is there no inspection of those products? Nobody is in charge of that. EOF can only inspect what is deemed to be a medicine. Dietary supplements should be sold at pharmacies, not at gyms. As a pharmaceutical organization, we plan to conduct an information campaign. But consumers should ask their doctor or pharmacist for advice. Can’t you take action on gyms? Many people have telephoned me but none have offered specific information because they are frightened. I have received threats, too. That doesn’t mean I’m going to be frightened but I must have specific information. There are complaints that anabolic steroids are on sale at gyms. According to EOF data, 1,500,000 syringes containing anabolic steroids were imported into Greece last year. Nobody knows where they went. My proposal is that there should be a special prescription for such substances so their availability can be controlled.