The dangers of steroids are well-known, but athletes still use them
Joanne Amies-Winter was extremely proud of her 44-28-35 figure. She was also obsessed with bodybuilding, spending at least three hours each day honing her physique to perfection.

By last year, the rigid training regime had paid off and she was the second strongest woman in the world. But earlier this week she died in her sleep. The whispers about the use of steroids, ever present in the bodybuilding world, are getting louder.

Her husband, Steve, himself a fanatical weight-lifter, has dismissed the suggestions of drug-taking, saying his wife of seven months had been hoping to have a baby. "Jo never took any steroids ever. She was a natural bodybuilder and she would never have taken them. She hated the idea because she thought it belittled everything she tried to achieve," he said.

But despite his denials, one of Mrs Amies-Winter's bodybuilding friends has privately admitted she had taken steroids.

"She didn't take many, a minimal amount, I would say. But it couldn't have been steroids that killed her. She was trying for a baby and would have come off them months ago."

Mrs Amies-Winter, who worked as a residential care worker, died in her sleep at the Berkshire home of a bodybuilding friend. Her husband found her lying face down, hugging the pillow, on Monday morning. The results of the post mortem were inconclusive, and it will be a fortnight before laboratory rests reveal the true cause of her death.

Whatever the reason for it, there is no doubt that the world of bodybuilding is indelibly stained by its associations with steroids. However, those who take part in the sport claim that they have been unfairly tainted.

Bill Tierney, of the English Federation of Bodybuilding, says: "It has been over-publicised and made out to be much worse that it is. Most people train in a healthy way and there is only a small minority that might use them."

But Michele Verroken, director of ethics and anti-doping at the Sports Council, said yesterday that steroids were rife in the bodybuilding world. "The situation is uncontrollable and these drugs are openly promoted in magazines.

"Those who use them will say they know the safe way to take them, but there are still side effects and we just do not know enough about them. There is no doubt that steroids are a dangerous substance.

"If you see a bodybuilder with the `cut look', where the veins stand out of the body, they are taking steroids. There is no other way of achieving that, but we see it at every bodybuilding competition."

Steroids are hormones that occur naturally in the body and some, particularly the male hormone testosterone, have been modified for commercial use to increase muscle bulk.

"There is no doubt that they have a massive impact on women because they receive a straight dose of male hormones," said Ms Verroken.

Professor Ray Brooks, Emeritus Professor of Chemical Endocrinology at St Thomas's Hospital, who helped devise ways to detect steroids in athletes, has studied their effects on the body. "There is no doubt that anabolic steroids can kill you," he says. "They can cause liver cancer in extreme cases and also jaundice because they are actually toxic to the liver. But the most common effect is on the heart, although that is hard to demonstrate because it takes longer to detect."

Regular use of anabolic steroids increases the body's count of low density lipo-proteins which causes heart disease, he says. People who have a risk of heart disease tend to already have a high concentration of these LDL's and taking steroids can increase that risk.

A handful of deaths in Britain have been publicly linked to steroids, but they can be extremely hard to detect in the body. In 1994, Zoe Warwick, a former European bodybuilding champion, killed herself blaming the effects of the steroids she took when competing in the late Eighties. And in Germany, one former athlete is suing her trainer, claiming that the steroids he gave her turned her into a man. Heidi Kreiger, who began taking steroids at the age of 16, was fed a record amount of testosterone - two-and-a- half times the amount recommended in East German sports scientists' secret manuals.

She said she became embarrassed about going into women's lavatories and abandoned women's clothes. Last year after saying she was turning into a man , she underwent a sex change operation and became Andreas.

It may be too early to say how Mrs Amies-Winter died, but in her home town of Hereford yesterday, friends were mourning the loss of a promising athlete. She had also achieved acclaim as a bodybuilder in national and international competitions and in women's rugby.

Mike Parry, the secretary of the Hereford Triathlon Club, said: "Jo was a very promising athlete. It is a terrible tragedy."