"Steroids" are simply a general class of chemicals. What athletes want is the "anabolic" element, because that sort of chemical builds muscle by increasing the production of protein, which is the basis of tissue. Former users include Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his early career as a bodybuilder, the American football player Lyle Alzado (who died of brain cancer), the Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson and, many suspect, the American runner Florence- Griffith Joyner, who died suddenly of heart failure in August. In 1994 a survey found over a million Americans had used anabolic steroids, despite it being illegal to own or use them except for medical purposes. Among 18-34 year-olds, one per cent of the population had used them - though five times more men than women.
Anabolic steroids are synthetic compounds that resemble testosterone, the male sex hormone. They were first developed in 1935 by three independent teams of chemists in the Netherlands and Germany, who were researching the synthesis of male hormones, which had only been isolated in 1931.
Early uses included treatment of high blood pressure, arterial disease, anaemia, male impotence, female menopause, and breast cancer. They were also used after World War II, when they were given to survivors of concentration camps to restore lost body mass.
But they have important side effects. Taken during puberty, they actually prevent proper bone growth, stunting the user. In men, the testes shrink and sperm production falls (the World Health Organisation considered their use as a male contraceptive). Female users develop a deeper voice, and get acne. They cause baldness, dangerously rapid heart rate, kidney stones, jaundice and liver tumours. There are also psychological effects - aggression ("roid rage") or anxiety - and addiction. Withdrawal causes weight loss addicts may remedy by returning to the drug.
Long-term effects include changes to blood pressure and cholesterol levels, with higher chance of heart disease, heart attack and cancer. Alzado blamed his use of steroids in his youth for the brain cancer that killed him.