In 1988, sprinter Ben Johnson exploded out of the blocks and powered his way to the finish line in the 100-meter dash at the Seoul Olympic Games, easily defeating a somewhat embarrassed Carl Lewis, who was heavily favored to win the race. It was a stunning television moment, a study in contrast between the well-muscled, modestly-spoken Canadian and the brash and lean American. Within 24 hours, it was all over. Johnson tested positive for steroid use and Lewis was awarded the gold medal.
At the time, it seemed outrageous that someone would cheat at such a high level of competitive sports. Of course, that was very naive thinking, but it was my personal "aha!" moment, the first time that steroids entered my vocabulary. As Christopher Bell explains in his entertaining, surprising documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, his "aha!" moment arrived when he learned that wrestling icons Hulk Hogan and Iron Sheik used steroids. Growing up in the 1980s, Bell idolized Hogan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Sylvester Stallone, manly men who were well-oiled muscle machines, their physiques achieved through entirely natural means, hard work and exercise rather than drugs.
That tied into Bell's personal decision not to use steroids, even though both his older brother Mike ("Mad Dog") and his younger brother Mark ("Smelly") chose the chemical route, each spending time in the professional wrestling ranks. Chris followed his own path, moving to California so he could train at the famed Gold's Gym, where Schwarzenegger and Stallone lifted weights. Fifteen years later, Bell wonders why he is still selling gym club memberships, while others -- notably his own personal heroes -- have achieved great success despite "cheating" by using steroids.
Bell's family is the core of the documentary. It is, blessedly, not a dysfunctional one. Mom and Dad are still together and living happily in Poughkeepsie, New York, while Mark and Mike are each married. Everyone gets along and talks to one another, yet, like any family, there are subjects that cause more discomfort than others, things that ought not be talked about, and in the Bell family, steroids are one of those subjects. Evidently, everyone except Chris has made peace with steroids. Mom and Dad are religious folks who discouraged their sons from using any type of drugs, and are unaware that Mike and Mark are long-time steroid users and still use them to this day. Neither wants to volunteer this information to their parents. By his exploration of the subject, Chris is stirring up trouble.
As a fledging filmmaker and near-constant on-camera presence, Chris Bell proves to be a modest storyteller. He appears to be genuinely interested in exploring the good and bad effects of steroids, endeavoring to cut through the television mythology and get to the facts. Frankly, I had no idea there were any "good" effects of steroids, but Bell builds a persuasive case that steroids have gotten a bad rap, portrayed as much more dangerous than they are.
Bell lays out some of the negative attention that steroids have received in the sports world. Football star Lyle Alzado blamed steroids for the brain tumor that killed him; baseball stars Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco testified in front of Congress, prompting Senator Joe Biden to label their actions "un-American." If that's true, says Bell, then what about my brothers? And what do the experts say? And what are steroids, anyway?
Bell and editor Brian Singbiel weave together the story of the Bell brothers (Mike and Mark, post-wrestling) with experts who have diametrically opposed views on the dangers involved. One doctor says that steroids are absolutely linked to strokes, heart attacks, and suicides suffered by teens, while others say there is no evidence. One medical ethicist points out that the ban on steroids means that no long-term studies have been undertaken to study the effects of steroids, while another doctor says it would be unethical to conduct such studies.
Bell visits a man who testified before Congress about his teenage son, who committed suicide after it was recommended that he stop taking steroids. The man appears to be a kind, loving parent, absolutely convinced that steroids are what killed his son. Bell gently asks about the irony of presenting a steroid awareness program at baseball stadiums where alcohol, a demonstrably more dangerous substance, is sold. His voice quavering just a little, the man says it can be argued whether alcohol kills or whether tobacco kills, but there's a "clear distinction" in his mind between tobacco and alcohol and "steroids and meth amphetamines and coke." It brings the point home. Steroids have been demonized as one of the biggest drug problems in the country, and we all want to protect our children.
Of course, all drugs have side effects, and steroids are no exception. They are used to treat certain medical conditions, and many of the users interviewed in the film talk about the positive benefits. Even though one expert says that professional athletes represent only a small minority of the total number of users, the subject always seems to come up in connection with competitive sports and fair play. Bell looks at various controversies at the Olympic Games, including the Ben Johnson incident I mentioned at the outset. He interviews an unrepentant Johnson, who maintains that all the athletes were using some type of drug to enhance their performance, and an equally unrepentant Carl Lewis, whose use of illegal substances before the Games was ruled "inadvertent."
The film keeps gliding back and around to the Bell family. Dad is clear-eyed and Mom is sentimental; Mike harbors dreams of stardom; Mark trains as a power lifter. Chris admits his own misgivings, thinks he made the right choice, questions the idea of fair play in American life, wonders if he limited his opportunities. The Bell family may be the best reason to see Bigger, Stronger, Faster* (the asterisk, by the way, leads to the wonderfully apt sub-title: The Side Effects of Being American).
For more about the film, check out Eric Kohn's inteview with filmmaker Chris Bell at the Tribeca Film Festival.