Pepping up nation's pastime

August 28, 1998

The New York Times said in an editorial on Thursday, Aug. 27:

A dismaying little chill blew through the red-hot home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa last weekend, when McGwire admitted that for about a year he had been ingesting a substance called androstenedione. The over-the-counter pill is classified by the Food and Drug Administration as a nutritional supplement, and is legal under Major League Baseball's drug rules. Even so, it is banned by the National Football League and by the International Olympic Committee, which recently suspended an American shot-putter, Randy Barnes, for using it.

For a lot of people, this has tainted Mr. McGwire's otherwise thrilling assault on Roger Maris' single-season record of 61 home runs, and some have even suggested, not entirely in jest, that if Mr. McGwire beats the record he should have an asterisk next to his name denoting that he did so under questionable circumstances.

Our view is that this is an unproductive line of argument, not so much because androstenedione is legal in baseball but because even the experts who believe the substance could build muscle strength also say there is no evidence that it improves the eye-hand coordination required of every successful hitter. There is also the problem of what to do with Sosa if he breaks the record. Mr. Sosa takes creatine, as does Mr. McGwire. Creatine is an over-the-counter amino acid, popular in many locker rooms, that is also thought to build muscles. Does that mean we should also award Mr. Sosa an asterisk, albeit a smaller one than Mr. McGwire's?

Uncertainty surrounds androstenedione's muscle-building powers, largely because it has not been studied in any detail. In medical terms, the substance is known as a "precursor" that the body converts into testosterone. Elevated testosterone levels, in turn, enable athletes to train harder and build more muscle. There is little doubt that anabolic steroids, which are widely banned, cause significant, performance-enhancing and potentially dangerous increases in muscle mass and strength. But there is debate in the medical and sports communities about whether androstenedione has the same result, or whether, as some experts believe, it is simply flushed from the system before it can significantly elevate testosterone.

These uncertainties about androstenedione's impact on the body are nevertheless cause for great concern -- especially now that thousands of younger athletes may be tempted to dash to their local drugstores and load up on the same stuff that McGwire is ingesting. The International Olympic Committee and the National Football League have chosen to err on the safe side. After days of ducking the issue, Major League Baseball's top officials announced a study of nutritional supplements on Wednesday. This is welcome news. But in view of the unanswered questions about androstenedione, a first prudent step would be to ask McGwire, and other players who use it, to take it off their shelves immediately.

Pub Date: 8/28/98

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