Steroids in women's strength sports is the fart in the lift. It's the elephant in the room. But if you hang with me, you'll know that I've farted in plenty of lifts. I'm not uncomfortable with it. I also like elephants.
Although I didn't attend the Arnold Classic this weekend, just watching the live stream and seeing the results filter through on social media brought up recurring concerns and reminded me of thoughts from when I last attended a national strength event. My overwhelming feelings then were of confusion. The women lifting were so impressive. They were the strongest of the strong. There were super-human lifting efforts from a massive variety of women. Some who looked like stereotypically athletic feminine women and some from women who did not look very stereotypically feminine at all. The woman who won the light division was in her 60s, and up against the best in the country. The woman who won my division clearly had a hormonal imbalance (I'm not a doctor but she shaved her beard) and the woman who won the heavy division was an absolute flat out beast. Don't get me wrong, the majority of women competing were very average fit looking females. The top tier however was dotted with women that confused my perception of "woman" or confronted my expectations of what was humanly possible.
What I am trying to say is that you could not be there without thinking about PEDs. It would be impossible. And if you are willing to say you have been at any female strength competition recently and NOT had some thoughts about issues in relation to PED use, then I am willing to suggest that you need your eyes tested.
I understand that gender (like sexuality) is best understood as existing on a spectrum. So what a woman looks like is a VAST fucking array of possibilities. There can be a huge variation in naturally occurring testosterone levels. In 2014, Indian athlete Dutee Chand was banned from representing her country by the International Association of Athletic Federation on the grounds that her body naturally produced too much testosterone, a condition called hyperandrogenism. It wasn’t her fault, as the organization explained, but her condition gave her an unfair edge over other female athletes (according to the IAAF policy).*
Historically female athletes have been subjected to (amongst other things) physical examinations to gauge "femaleness", but relatively new policy has been developed whereby a laboratory-based chromosome test assesses the testosterone present per liter of blood. Any female athlete who tests within the lower end of the "normal male range" of testosterone level will be ineligible for competition.
According to Associate Professor of Kinesiology, Pennsylvania State University Jaime Schultz "It’s worth noting that male athletes don’t seem to need similar protection. There is no upper limit to the levels of natural testosterone allowed in their bodies. In fact, male athletes with low testosterone can apply for a “Therapeutic Use Exemption” that allows them to take medically prescribed steroids to augment their androgen levels."*
Natural variations in testosterone are one thing but there is also the adjustment that some women choose to make with chemical manipulation in order to improve performance outcomes. Performance Enhancing Drugs. There is no doubt there are women who consciously choose to do this (as well as dudes who obviously sometimes choose to enhance their already higher levels of testosterone).
Victorian powerlifter Steph Fuller talks about focussing on her own performance after ProRaw 7
"We love the myth of a level playing field, but it doesn’t exist. Of the 207 nations competing in Rio, 75 have never won a medal. Wealthy, powerful countries dominate the Olympic Games, while conflicted, war-torn, impoverished countries simply lack the resources to promote sport to the level that will produce Olympic champions. That’s a clear disparity that raises little outcry." and further "Unless athletic authorities want to take on all conditions that might result in an unfair advantage – biological, genetic, social or otherwise – it seems arbitrary to focus on testosterone in female athletes."
So if competition can never be fair, this leaves me thinking, what do I want? Really? I'd just like to KNOW. I'm interested. It feels kinda relevant and secret. Would I like all of the women using PEDs to raise their hand? Yeah, sure, that would be rad. Although being honest is one of my values, I can't presume it is everyone's. Given this fact, the raising of hands idea doesn't really have legs and I will need to make assumptions if I want to guess if they are doing something I'm not doing.
I think I can assume that being the best is something that every woman competing aspires to be. Either "the flat out best" or "the best that she can be" best. I probably shouldn't make an assumption that because someone looks a certain way she's using PEDs. Or that because someone is stronger than me or my training partner they must be "on the gear". Mibee they work harder. Actually PROBABLY they work harder.
The women who don't use PEDs make that choice consciously. The women who do, also do so consciously.
It might sound contradictory but I actually have admiration for women who use PEDs. They train fuck off hard. They are willing to do more than most of us are to win. They are literally doing EVERYTHING possible to be the best. That aspect is undeniably admirable. Is it morally right to use PEDs in competition? Fuck knows. I certainly don't aspire to be the kind of human that casts moral judgements in this particular area.
Lance Armstrong made the point that "a nap is performance enhancing". Maximising performance is about choosing where you draw your "line". "Where is your personal line?". What are you willing to do to be your best? Nap? yes please. Estrogen blocker? Nah, personally - I'm good. But no judgement if you want to!
example 1. At the moment I try not to train on the weekend. I have decided that that is one of my "lines". Time with my family is more important to me than whatever I could gain by going to the gym on either of those days. Is failing to prioritize my training going to reduce my numbers? I would say most likely, yes. Am I OK with that? Also, yes.
example 2. I am not interested in using knee wraps. I want to see what my actual body can move. Again, this is personal preference. My line is at sleeves. Although wraps are performance enhancing...I don't view them as "cheating" and again, no judgement if you want to use them!
None of these personal choices are moral judgements on you and what you choose to do.
So what is the competitive powerlifting path for women who consciously choose not to pursue PEDs?
I know that some of you are screaming, "Duh! The IPF!!!". The International Powerlifting Federation is the only drug tested powerlifting federation available to women in Australia. Though seemingly the obvious solution to women who want to compete against non PED using women, this is not necessarily the answer for everyone. There are many reasons (aside from drug use) why lifters choose to avoid or lift in certain federations. Many of us want to do competitions with particular humans, friends, coaches & idols rather than align ourselves exclusively with a particular federation. Although if you want to compete in the IPF this will prohibit you from participating in other federations. I personally have lifted in GPA, GPC and IPF. I want to lift with friends. I want to be able to lift in whatever comp looks like it'll be fun. At the moment I am competing in strongman and don't even know how or if that would affect future aspirations to compete in the IPF.
There are plenty of women who don't use PEDs and have no intention of ever using PEDs who choose to compete in non tested federations. I'm sure we can all agree that the logic that drug tests equate to a federation being 100% "clean" is naive. From what I understand, other Australian lifting federations and competitions are not PED advocates but instead, simply recognise the impossibilities both financially and scientifically of keeping any type of sport 100% clean.
I do know, without naming names, that many female legit strong as fuck "clean" lifters I have talked to have expressed feeling disheartened but are also without ideas for a solution.
The silver lining of just not being THAT good a lifter is that I'm not often in contention for a podium spot. The chances of being robbed of a spot or of a record are slim to none. For me, ultimately and for a long time, lifting (even in competition) has been about my own performance. I need to find satisfaction in my own journey and in overcoming my own obstacles. I need to celebrate every time I lift better, think clearer or go heavier. I don't see this as a defeat, being negative, or not dreaming big. I see this as a victory.
If you are not aligned with the " you against you" philosophy, and in striving to be your "best self" then you are going to feel like shit about 100% of the time you are doing it.
"Comparison is the thief of joy" -Theodore Roosevelt
Although the PED "elephant in the room" will always intrigue me, having a self focused perspective helps me appreciate the efforts in competition and training of all women who love to lift regardless of their personal choices. The Arnold Classic was inspiring because of what each and every competitor personally arose to undertake. I can only work hard and hope to join them next year.