As many as 200,000 U.S. athletes between the ages of 10 and 14 have used anabolic steroids to enhance their performances, according to an exercise physiologist who recently conducted a nationwide survey.
Michael E. Gray, director of the National Youth Sports Research and Development Center at Northern Kentucky University, presented the findings Wednesday at the American College of Sports Medicine's annual convention.
His survey found:
--78% of the athletes had heard of steroids, but only 49% were told about the effects of the drug.
--43% believed that steroids would not harm an athlete if used carefully.
--55% thought steroid use alone would improve muscle size and strength.
--68% said Olympic athletes probably used steroids to make the team.
--12% said they knew where to obtain steroids.
--2% said they had used the drug.
Gray said there are about 10 million athletes competing within the age group surveyed.
A recent study in Oslo, Norway, offered similar conclusions but with a higher percentage of users.
Gray said little has been written about steroid use among children.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic drugs derived from the male hormone, testosterone. Steroids result in an androgenic effect, which includes the building of muscle tissue.
Abusing the drug can result in liver and heart problems, acne, mood swings and atrophy of the testes.
Endocrinologists say that children, even teen-agers, face other dangers when using steroids.
Because their bones are still growing, steroid use can "stop their growth," Gray said. "You get a closure of the bone growth centers because it matures right away."
The child might develop extra muscle tissue, but he or she would be shorter, according to Gray, who said youths get steroids from overzealous parents, family physicians and on the black market.
"Mom and dad perceive Johnny or Sally as the next Wilt Chamberlain," he said. "They want to push this kid on to be a professional athlete. They make them practice seven days a week, they will feed them like crazy, they will take them to all these games, and they will give them steroids."
Researchers distributed 2,700 surveys in 17 states, including California. They had a 46% response rate.
Athletes were picked from eight sports--basketball, baseball, soccer, football, softball, swimming, ice hockey and tennis. About 80% surveyed were boys.
In one case, Gray found a 10-year-old who was being injected with testosterone by teen-agers at a local gym. "It's a trickle-down effect," Gray said. "We weren't seeing this five years ago."
Suzanne Labarge of the University of Montreal presented a steroid study of athletes in a Quebec-only competition that found the Ben Johnson scandal had encouraged some to use steroids.
Johnson, a Canadian sprinter, won the gold medal in the 100 meters at the 1988 Olympics but tested positive for steroids. He was suspended for two years.
A highly publicized national hearing into drug use in Canadian sport that followed revealed widespread usage of drugs. Still, Labarge found that many athletes had an attitude of "If it worked for Ben Johnson, it can work for me."
A pending suit over the death of Hank Gathers, the Loyola Marymount basketball star who collapsed during a game March 4 and died shortly thereafter, has had a chilling effect on cardiologists.
Although a number of lectures and seminars have been offered on sudden cardiac arrest, Gathers' name has been noticeably absent.
Dr. Steven Van Camp of San Diego, one of the country's experts on sudden cardiac arrest, said physicians are reluctant to discuss Gathers' case until they have all the medical data.
Should Gathers have been allowed to play?
Van Camp said it is difficult to know without analyzing all the test results he was given by cardiologists and electrophysiologists.
During a lecture, Van Camp said 86% of the subjects in a case study were found to be able to exercise safely if appropriately evaluated and treated. Those athletes, however, did not compete at the breakneck pace of the Loyola team.
Gathers was tested regularly on a treadmill, which Van Camp said is not practical for the general populace. But he indicated that it might have been necessary, considering the kind of sprinting Gathers and his teammates did.
Van Camp also said regular testing with a Holter monitor, which Gathers had, was probably important. The Gathers family contends in their suit--against Loyola Marymount, basketball Coach Paul Westhead and a number of physicians--that cardiologists did not follow guidelines established in 1984 by the American College of Cardiology.
Those guidelines say that patients with an irregular heartbeat, and other symptoms that Gathers displayed, should not compete.
Van Camp said the American College of Cardiology report is a standard but is not binding: "A lot has changed since the report came out. In general, I think it is still a very useful document. But (care) still has to be individualized."