Sunday, September 23, 2018

A straight-shooting look at steroid use among athletes

Bigger Stronger Faster is a controversial documentary that offers a no-holds-barred look at the well-oiled underworld of athletes, weight lifters and human growth hormone (HGH).

Although I’ve always been a sucker for a documentary that deals with controversial subject matter, the chances of me seeing a movie about steroid use were still pretty low. Fortunately, I live in LA, where the chances of knowing someone who is involved in a low-budget film project are always pretty high. In this case, it was my friend Hope Zarro, a make-up artist who invited me to the Hollywood premier of Bigger Stronger Faster, a documentary about steroids that she worked on and would appear in.

Also appearing was her roommate, a tanned, towering, fitness model and actor named Christian Boeving, whose role in the film (which included controversial disclosures regarding his own steroid use) had resulted in him being dropped from his ten-year contract with MuscleTech, the largest supplement company in the world. Other than that, all I knew was that the movie was the independent brainchild of Chris Bell, a longtime acquaintance (and fellow Gold’s gym fixture) of both Hope and Christian, and was already garnering attention thanks to its no-holds-barred interviews and unapologetic look at one of today’s most taboo topics.

The well-oiled arena of muscles, egos, and artificial strength has always kind of freaked me out, but I could emote nothing but respect and optimism toward a film that not only featured two people I knew, but was actually completed and making its debut at the famed Egyptian theater on Hollywood Blvd.

It opened the best way a documentary can: by creating solidarity among the audience through familiar footage and iconic imagery of the topic at hand; in this case, a rousing testimonial to the early days of adrenaline in America, via a rapid-fire montage of muscle-happy sports and entertainment heroes (think Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, and some of the WWF’s greatest all-stars) with Bell delivering a spot-on narrative of our country’s devotion to not only being #1, but being the best - and the biggest, with moral consequences placing a distant second to titles and trophies.

This film managed to intertwine the professional and public side of the steroid debate with the personal experience of it’s creator and mastermind, who chronicles the middle-class upbringing of he and his two brothers with humor and charm (all three bore the burden of Hercules complexes and physical disadvantages during childhood). Tracing the unstoppable determination that led each of them down different paths under the cutthroat umbrella of the weight-lifting world, Bell offers a candid back story of the highs and lows of their careers and lives, complete with colorful input from the brothers themselves and touching interviews with their parents on the raw reality of raising three sons who, as his mother tearfully put it, “wondered why they didn’t think they were good enough as they were.”

Bell makes no apologies for the rampant use that we continue to see in every facet of athletics, from weight rooms to the Olympics, but does offer an impressive amount of eyebrow-raising stats and objective information, anchored with professional expertise from both sides, managing to retain his post as neutral informant (who once held the title of “the strongest teenager in the country”).

One can’t help but feel ambivalent during the movie, what with the overall (and underlying) message being a variation of the following: Cheating is wrong, and using steroids is cheating, but more or less every winner has used them, and if winning is good, then how can I lose?

For starters, the increasingly frequent rage-induced horror story comes to mind, most recently professional wrestler Chris Benoit, who, in June of 2007, killed his wife and son before taking his own life by hanging himself on a weight machine. It wasn’t long before his long battle with both steroid and depression was disclosed, kick-starting the chicken and the egg theory of steroid use and violence, an argument that never fails to galvanize yay and nay sayers alike. Also, the troubling suicide of 20-yr-old Taylor Hootan, who took his own life after becoming addicted to steroids and prescription drugs, which his family blames whole-heartedly for his death.

Bell does the opposite of shy away from these cases, however, acknowledging both Benoit’s troubling fate, going as far to meet Taylor’s father for a face-to-face interview in the family’s house, where he diplomatically but frankly challenges the accuracy of steroids in the role of scapegoat.
He then offers his own theory on the subject as a whole (which doubles as the film’s mantra), by saying that steroids with potentially dangerous side effects are neither the issue nor the reality here, but that steroids themselves are a side effect of being American. That statement may not hold a lot of weight on its own, but seeing as how a spot in the winner’s circle of today’s athletics is a position that is becoming dubious at best, it doesn’t take a sports fanatic to see that the American dream doesn’t hold a whole lot of weight either, at least of late. From Marion Jones to Barry Bonds, Jose Conseco’s tell-all to the Tour-de-France scandal. Archival clips of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger admitting to ongoing steroid use are powerful and unsettling, juxtaposed with modern-day snippets of the Terminator-turned-Governator waxing political poetry about how he got to where he is today through “hard work, honest living and following the rules.”

The destructive domino effect of childhood dreams, grown-up muscles and adult-size paychecks is clumsily trying to pave the way for a new strain of “down low” living, as this won’t soon be an issue where we can agree to disagree.

By the end of the film I found myself nodding along with Bell and his brothers’ blatant admissions and no-frills explanations of their steroid use, as they are willing to support an anti-steroid stance towards those who want to be like them, while steadfastly maintaining a pro-reality overview toward those who are like them.

For the record, Bell admits to trying steroids a few times before succumbing to guilt and uneasiness; he and his brothers appear to have parlayed their position into one of education and inspiration, as evident by the uplifting commentary from the high school kids that they now coach, train, and mentor, all of whom are advised to build strength the natural way, save for a heavy-duty protein shake here and there.

I have to admit, my mind was considerably swayed on this issue, thanks to a hard-hitting documentary that did what it is supposed to do – inform and entertain, with a well-balanced mix of fact and fun peppered throughout. The film is tough without being threatening, and most definitely big and strong.

About the Writer

Kate Aucella is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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