Former Sprinter Williams Recalls Steroid Use in ‘70s

Times Staff Writer

In 1983, Steve Williams, who for a decade had been America’s best sprinter, sat down and wrote a screenplay. He described it as an Animal House-type look at the world of big time track and field. Williams told a story of under-the-table payments and indiscriminate drug use. It was a comedy.

“No one believed it,” Williams said recently. “No one wanted to touch it. Now, with what we all know about the sport, lots of producers are interested.”

Williams has rewritten and updated his screenplay, which he calls “Speeding.” The story is not so funny anymore.


When he was the world’s dominant sprinter in the 1970s, Williams saw plenty of anabolic steroid use. But, he says, he is disturbed with the portrait that has emerged from the Canadian government’s inquiry into drug use by athletes.

Williams, 35, held the world record at 100 meters, 100 yards and 220 yards, graduated from San Diego State and now lives in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. He says that both the uses for steroids and the amounts used have increased radically.

“You have to remember that people were running at incredible speeds,” Williams said. “You have to take extraordinary measures to repair your body. In the ‘70s, steroids were used as a rehabilitative drug. You would take five milligrams, three times a week at a rehab center. The amounts were reasonable.

“Now, you are talking about 150-milligram injections. You are taking your life into your own hands. You are admitting defeat if you have to go to that. I don’t want to split hairs, but there is a difference between someone taking a substance during a specific period to get past an injury, and someone who takes it every day.”

Williams’ career was hampered by injuries. In 1972, he had qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials at 100, 200 and 400 meters, but suffered a leg injury before the competition. In 1976, Williams was the heavy favorite in the sprints before Montreal, but he pulled a hamstring in the heats at trials and did not make the team. Williams finally made the Olympic team in 1980, but could not compete in Moscow because of the boycott.

Williams was prominent at a time when the U.S. domination of track and field was being challenged by the Eastern Bloc. To Americans, the sudden sight of the obviously stronger East European athletes was both shocking and alarming.

“They were coming out in areas that were not their domain,” Williams said. “It became geopolitical war. They put their little soldiers on the line. They had a strong chemical strategy.”

Williams said that even when steroids were first tested for, at the 1976 Olympics, and after, drug use did not decline. In fact, he said, use increased, with the help of officials.

“The 1977 World Cup was the first competition that was advertising heavy drug testing,” he said. “It didn’t have any effect at all on the athletes. . . . There was no testing. We ran a world record in the relay. Of course we expected to be tested. Nope. Testing was just a scare tactic. They manipulated the drug testing for their own benefits.”

Williams said he’s saddened by the level of drug use in track today.

“What I’m seeing with the young athletes is they think drugs make you,” he said. “They don’t see that they will also break you.”