It’s not easy becoming Mr. Canada.
Erik Alstrup spent lots of time at the gym lifting weights to prepare for his bodybuilding competitions. He did well, winning several titles while in his early 20s.
But he wanted to turn pro. “I thought if I could do well and turn professional, I thought I could make a career out of this and do well, and make a decent livelihood for myself out of this. I really loved it,” he said.
When he looked at the competition, he noticed something – most of the other bodybuilders were using steroids to achieve their massive size and defined physique. So, he started using steroids too.
“I went ahead and tried it and got some great results and did very well with it. I used it for about three years or so, and did end up winning the national championships, the Canadian bodybuilding championships, and realized my dream. So that was a risk that I took and it paid off.”
Alstrup earned the title of Mr. Canada in 1998 at the age of 27, winning in the heavyweight and overall categories, but despite achieving his goal, all was not well. He was having emotional problems that he attributes to his drug use. His professional bodybuilding career didn’t last long.
“I did one professional contest, and I looked around and saw that even greater level of drug use at the professional level. And I decided, right then and there, I could not go on with it,” he said. “I had an epiphany, essentially, backstage, and decided in that moment I was done with it.”
Alstrup quit steroids, quit bodybuilding and didn’t look back for ten years.
Steroids across Canada
See our graphic of the top five drugs in each region of Canada
Alstrup is just one of the many Canadians who have used steroids.
These performance-enhancing drugs, famous for costing sprinter Ben Johnson his Olympic medal, are seized six times more often than cocaine, nine times more often than hashish and 22 times more often than heroin, according to records from the Canada Border Services Agency.
They’re the second most commonly-seized drug at the Canadian border, behind marijuana. In Quebec, steroids are seized more often than any other drug.
Using Access to Information laws, Global News obtained and analyzed a list of prohibited items seized at the Canadian border by CBSA between January 1st, 2005 and July 12, 2011.
During that time period, there were 12,104 steroid seizures by CBSA officers, worth an estimated total of $9,850,529.
According to CBSA, the drugs enter Canada through commercial cargo shipments, are hidden with passengers and are sent through international mail. They can come from any country, although many shipments originate from places where the drugs are legal, such as Eastern Europe.
Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, importation of steroids carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. Possessing steroids for personal use carries no criminal penalty.
It’s hard to say exactly how many Canadians are using steroids. One survey by the Canadian Centre for Drug-Free Sport found that 2.8 per cent of Canadian students in Grade 6 and above had used anabolic steroids in the year before the survey.
There are other signs that steroid use is more widespread than you might think.
49,000 steroid syringes were distributed by Halton Region’s needle exchange program in 2010 alone. According to the program’s coordinator, steroid users account for 40 per cent of clients.
At this rate of seizure and this number of needles distributed, it’s clear that not everyone using steroids is an athlete.
Why people use steroids
“There aren’t that many competitive athletes,” said Dr. Gary Goldfield, a clinical scientist with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group.
“I think there’s a lot of recreational users. I imagine most of them are males trying to gain muscle and lose fat just basically for body image reasons.”
“You’d find that there are probably as many different reasons for using as there are people,” said Cecil McDougall, Outreach Coordinator for the Sexual Health and Needle Exchange Program in Halton Region. He sees steroid users in his daily work.
“It can be a coping function, it can be a social function, it can be an emotional coping skill. Some of them it’s purely aesthetics with very specific goals and it’s done just for that and then it’s over with. It’s not always the same for everybody. Much the same as drug use.”
Some of the people McDougall sees want to achieve a specific goal – a certain amount of weight gain or a specific measurement. Often, they will stop using steroids once they achieve that goal.
Others, he said, just want to be “bigger.” These are the ones that he worries about. “How do you know when you’ve reached your goal? In other words, there is no endpoint. And in terms of what we see is, people who have that kind of goal in mind, are people who stay on and use longer and longer.”
Alstrup believes that the media and popular culture are partly to blame for widespread steroid use. “I was in a Nike store the other day, looking for a t-shirt. And even the mannequins are big and muscular now,” he said.
“It’s very challenging I think growing up these days if you’re not physically in great shape.”
Dr. Harrison Pope, Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a leading steroid researcher, calls this phenomenon the “Adonis Complex.” “We see images of muscularity every day in TV shows, Hollywood movies, advertisements, magazines, everywhere, so that the image that a masculine man is someone who is muscular is so integral to our society that it is something that is learned by every growing boy across North America.”
Steroids provide an answer of sorts to the problem, causing individuals to build muscle and lose fat at a rate that would be impossible through natural means, said Pope.
While he estimates that only a minority of steroid users will develop a dependency, and he cautions that side effects vary between individuals, the consequences can be severe. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, side effects of anabolic steroid use can include high blood pressure, heart failure, liver enlargement, personality changes and feminization in men or masculinization in women.
Life after steroids
Erik Alstrup quit steroids after his first professional bodybuilding competition, and also quit the sport. It was a big adjustment in his life style, one he found difficult to cope with. In his time off, he took up running and went into therapy. He says he has now been clean for 12 years.
He recently started competing again as a bodybuilder, this time in drug-free events. He is once again on the podium, winning titles.
He said he is feeling better and healthier than ever since he stopped using steroids. “Making a decision to stop using it and go in a different direction, it certainly can be done,” he said.