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PLAYING WITH FIRE <br> FROM SYDNEY TO WNY, ATHLETES RISKING THEIR HEALTH TO PERFORM BETTER

Seth Johnson, a senior at Frewsburg High School in Chautauqua County, is one of the fastest swimmers in New York State. As a junior, he finished fourth in March in a statewide competition in the boys' 50-meter freestyle.

He is working toward a college scholarship -- and dreams of a shot at the Olympics.

The 17-year-old knows that using anabolic steroids or other banned drugs would make him just a bit faster. But Johnson said he never intends to try the drugs, regardless of the recent conduct of some of his role models in the Olympics and in professional sports.

"I'm not tempted. I wouldn't use it," Johnson said. "If I used steroids and won, it really wouldn't be me. What's the point?"

Johnson is one of thousands of athletes in Western New York who face tough ethical decisions every day regarding the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

In recent days, the athletes have heard disturbing and confusing reports of illegal drug use among some competitors in the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Forty-seven athletes have been suspended from the Sydney Games for doping offenses, by far the largest number ever in the Olympics.

World champion shot putter C.J. Hunter, who sat out the Olympics, earlier this year tested positive for steroids and Romania's Andreea Raducan, winner of the all-around gymnastics title, was caught using a cold medication with a banned stimulant; she lost her final appeal today and must relinquish her medal.

One anti-drug organization, the Healthy Competition Foundation, estimates that more than 1 million high school athletes throughout America are already using some kind of performance-enhancing substance -- legal and illegal.

And now some local experts are concerned that the Olympics doping scandals could increase those numbers -- not only among young people, but among adults.

Who in Western New York uses performance-enhancing drugs?

Possibly the teenager next door.

Or that weight lifter down the street who walks around with a physique like the Incredible Hulk.

"What's going on in the Olympics this year has the potential to be very harmful to athletes, especially young people," said Doug Ames, a health teacher from Newfane who chairs the chemical awareness program for Section VI of the State Public High School Athletic Association.

"We're seeing Olympic athletes who are trying to use shortcuts, trying to use a quick fix, to be productive. I don't want our young people to follow that example."

Ames and other experts believe the use of anabolic steroids is minimal among high school and college athletes in Western New York.

But they say the use of other performance-enhancing substances -- particularly creatine, a muscle-building nutritional supplement that is not banned by law and has been used by professional athletes such as baseball sluggers Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa -- appears to be skyrocketing.

"I would not be surprised if at least 20 percent of the high school athletes around here are using creatine these days," Ames said.

Dr. John Leddy, associate director of sports medicine at the University at Buffalo, believes the proportion of high school and college athletes using creatine is much higher than 20 percent.

Creatine is not an illegal drug, and it has not been banned from use by athletes at any level, Leddy noted.

"Creatine use is increasing tremendously," said Leddy, who is also one of the team physicians for UB's 21 sports teams. "There's no indication that creatine is harmful in the short term, but there hasn't been enough study to determine the long-term effects. Kids are taking huge doses of it, just scooping it down, with no medical supervision. I advise athletes not to use it."

Body builders on steroids

Authorities believe the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs -- including dangerous anabolic steroids -- is much higher among adult body builders and weight lifters.

Competitive weight lifters such as John Schweikhard of West Falls, Mike Cochrane of North Tonawanda and Mike Ferrentino of Williamsville say there are many users of steroids and other muscle-enhancing drugs among those who pump up their bodies at local gyms.

"Unfortunately, I think the real truth is athletic-enhancement drug use is all on the increase, both competitively and noncompetitively," said Schweikhard, program director for the Buffalo Athletic Club at Eastern Hills Mall.

Schweikhard, 30, takes part in drug-free weight lifting contests. Even there, some believe, some competitors are cheating with steroids and other drugs.

"My guess is that it's rampant right now in the younger community," he said. "It's almost becoming like a street drug."

Schweikhard, who has been competing for 14 years, said he is amazed to see young weight lifters who grow bigger muscles than he has in just two months.

Doctors say anabolic steroid use can damage the heart, kidneys and liver, and can cause drastic, sometimes violent, personality changes.

"The young men who are working out and trying to be the biggest guy on the beach or the biggest guy on the gym, that's where it's becoming dangerous, because they don't know what they're doing," Schweikhard said.

Cochrane, who won state and national competitions in the 1980s, believes steroid use is "much more rampant" than the general public believes.

Dick Gallagher, who has long been active in the worlds of drug treatment and high school sports, agrees.

"I think the problem of people using steroids or stimulants is much more serious than coaches or athletic directors want to believe," Gallagher said. "You have a lot of kids going for the gold, just like the Olympians, and some of them are willing to use drugs to get bigger, stronger and faster."

Gallagher is the executive director of a not-for-profit drug treatment agency called Alcohol & Drug Dependency Services. He also has coached youth sports for 25 years and is publisher of Western New York High School Sports Magazine.

Gallagher said he has never heard of a high school athlete in Western New York being suspended for using steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs.

"But I can go out and speak at a football camp, and I can ask 100 kids if they know where to get drugs at their school," Gallagher said. "And just about every hand will shoot up in the air."

Dr. Robert Whitney, clinical director of chemical dependency services at Erie County Medical Center, estimated that only about 1 percent of the hospital's cases deal with steroid abuse.

"My guess is it's probably much more widespread than that," Whitney said. "I think we only see the tip of the iceberg."

Random drug testing is done on college athletes, said Chuck Pelitera, strength and conditioning coordinator at Canisius College, "and we haven't seen a positive test for steroids here in at least 10 years."

"I don't think many college athletes are using (steroids), but I do think there is a very big black market for steroids," Pelitera said.

Illegal sales

Police say they are watching for the pushers of illegal steroids, but steroid drug busts are relatively rare in Western New York.

Federal agents have caught dealers bringing steroid pills in from Canada on a number of occasions. In 1994, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration charged two men who owned a Buffalo bar with providing steroids to Dr. George Astaphan of Toronto.

Astaphan, in turn, supplied steroids to Ben Johnson, the Canadian sprinter who was stripped of a gold medal during the 1988 Olympics.

In 1993, Orchard Park police charged four men with dealing steroids to local athletes, mostly in the Hamburg area. Detective Lt. Robert Ziehm said steroid abuse was "pretty widespread" in the Southtowns at that time.

"We don't hear of it as often now," Ziehm said.

Trouble signs

High school athletes are not routinely tested for drugs.

So what trouble signs would be evident in a young athlete using steroids?

According to Leddy, parents should be watching for three changes:

Rapid weight gain and increase in muscle mass.

Psychological changes, including an increase in hostile, aggressive behavior.

Increased acne, not only on the face but on the back and other parts of the body.

Leddy advises parents of athletes to talk to their sons and daughters about the dangers and the ethical issues surrounding performance-enhancing drugs.

"I try to appeal to the athlete's sense of honor," Leddy said.

Seth Johnson's parents, Bruce and Nancy Johnson, are well aware of those issues.

"I'm not naive enough to think that no kids are using these drugs," Nancy Johnson said.

"One thing we've taught our kids is that sports isn't everything. We don't want them thinking that it's OK to do whatever it takes to be a winner in sports. There are more important things in life."

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