Top 10 Performance-Boosting Drugs (And Athletes Who Took ‘Em)

It seems that you can’t go a day anymore without news of another professional athlete getting busted for performance-enhancing drugs. (Ironically, studies have shown that many of them don’t necessarily improve performance and might actually detract from overall athletic function in the long run.) Most of these drugs actually serve legitimate functions outside of athletics and thus aren’t illegal, but they’re outlawed by various athletic organizations and are available to the public only by prescription — something most athletes don’t have. There are a lot of rumors of illegal usage by various athletes, but for the purposes of this list, we’re sticking to those who’ve either admitted using or have tested positive for using performance enhancing drugs.

Mark McGwire
Mark McGwire

10. Androstenedione (“Andro”)

What is it? A steroid produced in the adrenal glands and the gonads, which is converted in the body to testosterone.

Medical Use: To aid in the production of testosterone for individuals with hormonal problems.

Athletic Use: To increase muscle strength and mass and to shorten muscle recovery time.

Possible Negative Side Effects: Acne, headaches, blurred vision, premature baldness, kidney and liver disease, enlarged prostate, reduced sperm count, infertility, aggressive behavior.

Is it legal? Since 2004, legal only with a prescription.

Notable Users:

  • Roy Jones, Jr. (boxer): Andro was available in over-the-counter supplements when he tested positive in 2000. He was not disciplined.
  • Mark McGwire (baseball player): Admitted using it in 1998, at a time when it was legal not banned by Major League Baseball. He was not disciplined.


Manny Ramirez
Manny Ramirez

9. Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (“HCG”)

What is it? A hormone produced in pregnant women by the placenta.

Medical Use: Used in women to increase the chance of pregnancy. In men, HCG helps the production of testosterone and sperm and can be used in male children with testicular birth defects. Sometimes used as a weight loss product.

Athletic Use: Used in conjunction with cycles of anabolic steroid intake to maintain levels of testosterone after the steroids cause the body to shut down testosterone production. Also helps restore testicular size after steroid cycles.

Possible Negative Side Effects: Soreness, restlessness, acne, headaches, depression. More serious side effects in women, including severe pain and swellling, nausea, diarrhea.

Is it legal? In most states, it’s available only by prescription, but some states don’t regulate its use.

Notable Users:

  • Jose Canseco (baseball player): Was caught in 2008 trying to smuggle HCG across the border from Mexico without a prescription, claiming he needed it to jump-start the testosterone in his body that had been drained from years of steroid abuse (which he’d detailed in his 2005 autobiography). He was sentenced to probation and was not disciplined by Major Leage Baseball, since he’d been retired since 2002.
  • Manny Ramirez (baseball player): Tested positive in 2009, claiming he was given it for a “personal health issue.” Since it was added to Major League Baseball’s banned substances list in 2008, he was suspended for 50 games.


Bill Romanowski
Bill Romanowski

8. Human Growth Hormone (“HGH,” Somatotropin)

What is it? A hormone produced by the pituitary gland that promotes body growth. Whereas anabolic steroids primarily affect muscles, HGH strengthens bones and tendons as well.

Medical Use: Used to treat child growth disorders and adult growth hormone deficiency. Sometimes used to combat aging — specifically lowering body fat, increasing energy, improving skin tone and texture and aiding in immune system function — and body atrophy from diseases like AIDS.

Athletic Use: To reduce body fat (and thus increase lean body mass), speed recovery from injury and increase resistence to injury.

Possible Negative Side Effects: Joint pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, abnormal bone thickening, diabetes, high blood pressure, increased risk for colon and prostate cancer.

Is it legal? Available only by prescription; use in anti-aging procedures is not legal in the US.

Notable Users:

  • Jason Giambi (baseball player): In late 2003, admitted to a federal grand jury that he took HGH and steroids from 2001 to 2003. At the time of use, Major League Baseball had no rules barring players from using steroids or HGH (although these drugs were illegal for individuals to possess or use without a prescription). He was not disciplined.
  • Andy Pettitte (baseball player): In 2007, admitted that he had taken HGH in 2002 to speed healing from an elbow injury. He was not disciplined.
  • Bill Romanowski (football player): In 2005, admitted on the TV show 60 Minutes that he’d taken HGH and steroids from 2001 to 2003. Since he’d been retired since 2003, he was not disciplined.


Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds

7. Amphetamines

What is it? A nervous system stimulant and appetite suppressant.

Medical Use: To treat hyperactive children, sleep disorders and depression.

Athletic Use: To increase energy and focus.

Possible Negative Side Effects: Restlessness, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, nerve damage, tremors, impotence, hallucinations, increased blood pressure.

Is it legal? Restricted to prescription use only since 1965.

Notable Users:

  • Barry Bonds (baseball player): In 2006, tested positive for amphetamines. Under Major League Baseball’s drug testing rules, he was subjected to counseling and increased testing, but was otherwise not disciplined. (A second positive test earns a 25 game suspension, a third positive test results in an 80-game suspension and a fourth nets a lifetime ban.)
  • Jason Giambi (baseball player): In 2007, it was reported that he failed a drug test for amphetamines. He was subjected to counseling and increased testing.
  • *It should be noted that since the 1960s, widespread, open use of amphetamine pills (“greenies”) has been reported in professional baseball. Stories of bowls of pills in locker rooms and “special” pots of coffee spiked with amphetamines were common, and player usage was estimated by some as high as 85%. However, it wasn’t until 2006 that Major League Baseball began testing for amphetamines.


Marion Jones
Marion Jones

6. Tetrahydrogestrinone (“THG,” “the Clear”)

What is it? A “designer” anabolic steroid (a steroid that acts as the hormone testosterone), created at the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) to be undetectable by drug tests. Used in combination with a testosterone ointment called “the cream” to avoid detection.

Medical Use: None.

Athletic Use: To increase muscle strenth and promote muscle growth.

Possible Negative Side Effects: Acne, infertility, weakened immune system, high blood pressure, liver damage, increased aggression.

Is it legal? No. It is listed under Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, meaning: 1) the drug or other substance has a high potential for abuse; 2) the drug or other substance has no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States; and 3) there is a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision.

Notable Users:

  • Barry Bonds (baseball player): In the 2003 investigation of BALCO, told a U.S. grand jury that he was given “the cream” and “the clear” by his trainer during the 2003 season but thought that they were a pain-relieving balm and the nutritional supplement flaxseed oil. He was not disciplined.
  • Jason Giambi (baseball player): In the 2003 investigation of BALCO, told a U.S. grand jury that he used “the cream” and “the clear” during the 2003 season. He was not disciplined.
  • Marion Jones (track athlete): In 2007, admitted to using and “the clear” for two years in preparation for the 2000 Olympics, thinking that it was flaxseed oil given to her by her trainer. In 2008, she was sentenced to six months in prison for perjury relating to her initial denial of both her steroid use and her involvement in a check-fraud scam.
  • Shane Mosley (boxer): Used the BALCO products before his 2003 fight with Oscar De La Hoya but claims that he thought they contained legal vitamins. He has not been disciplined.
  • Bill Romanowski (football player): In 2005, admitted on the TV show 60 Minutes that he’d taken “the cream” and “the clear” and HGH from 2001 to 2003. Since he’d been retired since 2003, he was not disciplined.
  • Gary Sheffield (baseball player): Similar to Bonds, admitted in 2004 that in 2002 he’d applied a cream to his injured knee, unaware that it contained steroids. He was not disciplined.


Carl Lewis
Carl Lewis

5. Ephedrine (Ephedra, Ma Huang)

What is it? A chemical compound derived from the herb ephedra.

Medical Use: Used as a decongestant and for temporary relief of asthma and bronchitis. Also used as a stimulant to treat sleep disorders, as a treatment for menstrual problems or urine-control problems, and as a treatment for low blood pressure associated with anesthesia.

Athletic Use: To increase energy and alertness and to lose weight by speeding up metabolism.

Possible Negative Side Effects: Nausea, high blood pressure, dizzyness, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, insomnia, hallucinations, paranoia, acne, cardiac arrhythmia.

Is it legal? Dietary supplements containing ephedrine are illegal in the US, but ephedrine is still available over the counter in many applications outside of dietary supplements. However, sales are heavily monitored and restricted, including limits on sales by merchants. It’s banned by the International Olympic Committee, the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association.

Notable Users:

  • Steve Belcher (baseball player): In 2003, took diet pills containing ephedrine before a workout and ended up dying of complications from heatstroke. The coroner’s reports indicated that ephedrine played a major part in his death. Belcher’s case helped lead to the FDA banning ephedrine dietary supplements.
  • Ato Boldon (track athlete): In 2001, tested positive for ephedrine and was given a warning, but he was not suspended. Boldon maintained the drug was in a cold medicine he’d taken.
  • Carl Lewis (track athlete): Tested positive for ephedrine prior to the 1988 Olympics and was initially banned from the games, but that decision was overturned due to his explanation of inadvertent use in an over-the-counter herbal remedy.
  • Diego Maradona (soccer player): During the 1994 World Cup tournament, tested positive for ephedrine and was ejected. He was subsequently banned from soccer for 15 months. He claimed that he unknowingly took the drug in a “power drink.”
  • Korey Stringer (football player): Like Belcher, died of heatstroke in 2001. An ephedrine product was found in his locker, but the drug’s connection to his death was never proven.


Rafael Palmeiro
Rafael Palmeiro

4. Stanozolol (Winstrol)

What is it? A man-made anabolic steroid derived from testosterone.

Medical Use: To promote bone and tissue growth and to treat hormonal problems and skin/tissue swelling.

Athletic Use: To increase the strength of athletes’ muscles, generate lean body mass and to improve endurance.

Possible Negative Side Effects: Liver damage, joint pain, acne, sexual dysfunction.

Is it legal? Approved by the FDA for human use, but it’s illegal to possess without a prescription.

Notable Users:

  • Ben Johnson (track athlete): Was stripped of his 1988 Olympic gold medal for the 100 meter dash when he tested positive for stanozolol. He was subsequently suspended from racing for two years.
  • Rafael Palmeiro (baseball player): In 2005, less than four months after swearing under oath in a Congressional hearing that he’d never used steroids, he tested positive for stanozolol. He claimed that he unknowingly took the drug and was suspended by Major League Baseball for 10 games.
  • Tim Sylvia (mixed martial arts fighter): In 2003, tested positive and was suspended for six months. He voluntarily relinquished his UFC heavyweight championship title.
  • Fernando Vargas (boxer): After a fight with Oscar de la Hoya in 2002, tested positive and was suspended from boxing for nine months.


Martina Hingis
Martina Hingis

3. Cocaine (“Coke”)

What is it? A chemical compound stimulant derived from the coca plant.

Medical Use: Used as a topical anesthetic to numb the surface of a body part — most often for eye, ear, nose, throat, neck and head injury.

Athletic Use: Although cocaine isn’t typically thought of as a performance-enhancing drug, the energy boost and self-confidence it creates can aid in short-term athletic activity.

Possible Negative Side Effects: High blood pressure, hyperactivity, increased heart rate, hallucinations, paranoia, nasal cartilage decay, irregular heartbeat, lung trauma.

Is it legal? May be prescribed under special restrictions. Otherwise, illegal to possess or use.

Notable Users:

  • Dwight Gooden (baseball player): Tested positive for cocaine in 1987 and entered rehab in order to avoid suspension by Major League Baseball. In 1994, he again tested postitive and was suspended for 60 days.
  • Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson (football player): In his 1988 autobiography, admitted to snorting cocaine out of a nasal inhaler while playing in Super Bowl XIII in 1979. He was kicked off of the team two years later in part because of his drug habit.
  • Martina Hingis (tennis player): In 2007, during the Wimbledon tennis tournament, tested positive for cocaine and was banned from tennis for two years. She retired shortly after the results were announced.
  • Diego Maradona (soccer player): Was suspended from soccer for 15 months in 1991 for testing positive for cocaine.
  • Michael Irvin (football player): Was arrested in 1996 for cocaine possession and sentenced to four years’ probation. He was suspended by the National Football League for five games.
  • Darryl Straw

    berry (baseball player):
    In 1995, tested positive for cocaine and was suspended by Major League Baseball for 60 days. Arrested in 1999 for cocaine possession, sentenced to 18 months’ probation and received a 120-day suspension from baseball. Tested positive again for cocaine in 2000 and was suspended for a year.
  • Lawrence Taylor (football player): Tested positive in 1988 and was suspended by the National Football League for 30 days. In his 2003 autobiography, admitted to being high on cocaine during games and borrowing teammates’ urine to fool drug tests.


Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez

2. Testosterone

What is it? A steroid hormone produced primarily in the testes of males and the ovaries of females.

Medical Use: Used to treat males with deficient testosterone production, as well as treatment of osteoporosis, cardio-vascular disease, obesity, depression, anxiety.

Athletic Use: Aids in building muscle mass and reducing fat and increasing bone density and strength.

Possible Negative Side Effects: Enlarged prostate, high blood pressure, liver damage, sexual dysfunction, testicular atrophy, acne.

Is it legal? Available only by prescription only.

Notable Users:

  • Mary Decker (track athlete): A 1996 urine test revealed a level of testosterone over the allowed maximum. Although she argued that Decker the test is unreliable for older women (she was 37) taking birth control pills, she was stripped of a silver medal she won at the 1997 World Indoor Championships.
  • Justin Gatlin (track athlete): In 2006, tested positive for a steroid, believed to be testosterone, and received a four-year ban from track and field, avoiding a lifetime ban by cooperating with authorities.
  • Jason Giambi (baseball player): In 2003, admitted to a federal grand jury that he took testosterone, HGH and other steroids from 2001 to 2003. He was not disciplined.
  • Floyd Landis (cyclist): After winning the Tour de France in 2006, his urine test came back with an unusually high level of testosterone. After providing a number of excuses and defenses, Landis was stripped of his title and banned from cycling for two years.
  • Alex Rodriguez (baseball player): In 2009, confidential information was leaked that he had tested positive for testosterone and the anabolic steroid Primobolan in 2003. He confessed but was not disciplined, as the 2003 test had been conducted as part of a penalty-free survey to determine the extent of steroid usage within Major League Baseball.


Chris Benoit
Chris Benoit

1. Nandrolone (Deca-durabolin)

What is it? An anabolic steroid (a steroid that acts as the hormone testosterone) that occurs in small amounts in the human body.
Medical Use: Used to treat osteoporosis in postmenopausal women, to aid in the growth of blood cells in bone marrow, and to help tissue and muscle growth in people suffering from degenerative diseases like AIDS.
Athletic Use: To grow muscle mass and aid in physical recovery from workouts.
Possible Negative Side Effects: Cardiovascular damage, sexual dysfunction, liver damage, acne, sterility, baldness, enlarged prostate.
Is it legal? Available only by prescription.

Notable Users:

  • Chris Benoit (professional wrestler): In June 2007, killed his wife and son before hanging himself. Although there was no substantial evidence to tie the wrester’s drug usage to the murders, it was later revealed that he’d received shipments of nondrolone and the drug anastrozole (used to counter side effects of steroid use) through a ring of disreputable health care professionals.
  • Royce Gracie (mixed martial arts fighter): After a fight in 2007, tested positive for nandrolone and was banned for a year.
  • Shawne Merriman (football player): In 2006, tested positive and was supsended for four games. The incident led the National Football League to pass a rule that forbids a player who tests positive for steroids from being selected to the Pro Bowl or winning any performance awards in the year in which they tested positive.
  • James Toney (boxer): Tested positive after winning the World Boxing Association (WBA) heavyweight championship in 2005. He was stripped of the title and suspended from boxing for 90 days.
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