Steroid Nation sets out to tell the story of how steroids and steroid use became a significant part of sporting life in the USA. Assael paints a broad canvas that stretches from the mavericks that started an underground steroid movement to the very highest levels of professional sport. The book follows a chronological timeline from Gold’s gym in LA in the 80’s right up to the BALCO case in 2007.
This is the second of Assael’s books I have read, and like ‘The Murder of Sonny Liston’ it contains a cast of characters that at times seem too unbelievable to be true. The book is at it’s best when it tells the untold story of the likes of Dan Duchaine and the underground bodybuilding scene of the 1970’s and 80’s. At times these chapters reminded me of movies like Blow that focus on the emergence of a drug empire from a largely unexpected source. Assael paints an intoxicating picture of excess, greed, muscles and risk – young men embarking on a journey with a self-righteousness that left them blind to the inevitable tragedies that would befall them.
Some of the other material deserves (and has received) full length books of their own and Assael can understandably only scratch the surface of Ben Johnson, Mark McGwire and BALCO for example. What it does do brilliantly is tie the various streams together and paint the wider cultural issue of steroids- it’s a problem at every level of sport – from gym users, to high school to the major leagues and Olympics. The political background of how supplements/steroids became (badly) regulated in the US is also really interesting. Overall, the book is a brilliant introduction to the world of sports doping and would send a curious reader towards other really good books like The Dirtiest Race in History or League of Denial
Assael also shines a light on the crusading drug enforcement officials – if anything the focus on the likes of Travis Taggart has gotten even brighter since this book was published. The book paints the origins of the USDA’s move to start to ban people on the basis of documentary evidence rather than relying on a failed test – the approach that ultimately led to Lance Armstrong confessing. These parts of the book flow less smoothly or quickly than the rest – I found them very interesting though and it’s clear that Assael has enormous respect for those law enforcement officers who dedicated their careers to this fight. It’s slightly depressing reading about these guys at a time when WADA is being discredited for its favourable treatment of Russia and an apparent lack of objectivity.
I really enjoyed Steroid Nation. I’m conscious that I’ve just read this book 10 years after it first came out. It feels like a sequel (or a revised and updated edition) would be a similarly fascinating read with Lance Armstrong now exposed, the Russian doping scandal and plenty of additional material available. If anything, I would suspect that the term Steroid Nation remains as apt and relevant to describe sporting culture as it did a decade ago.