AMMAN – “They gave me the wrong injection”.
These were the last words uttered by Faris Al-Maita, 22, before he died on 4 July 2011 at the body-building gym where he regularly trained at a neighborhood in a West Amman. There had been no signs of Faris’s oncoming tragedy minutes before he passed out. His friends say he had taken an injection of steroids to make his muscles grow faster.
The final forensic report is not yet completed, pending the results of toxicology tests. His blood samples, which were sent to a lab in Germany due to the lack of an appropriate lab locally, indicate that his death was a result of doping.
The initial autopsy report states that in the case of Faris, “the immediate cause of death was severe internal bleeding.”
Meanwhile, Iyhab Al-Zariqi, a friend of Faris at the fitness club, recalls the moment of Faris’s death on that hot summer afternoon. He was in the changing room with his coach. Suddenly, the coach ran out of the room, calling to one of his colleagues: “Captain! One of the guys has passed out in the bathroom!”
Al-Zariqi remembers seeing that “Faris’s eyes were red and his lips were swollen. We propped his head up on my legs and asked, ‘How are you feeling?’”
He answered us with difficulty, his chest heaving: “I used the wrong steroid needle.” But he didn’t tell us who gave him the needle.
A little bit later, Faris was rushed by ambulance to the King Hussein Medical Complex where he was immediately pronounced dead.
As steroids claimed the death of Faris and five other young men, they also affected the health of Ahmed Salim, 22. He suffered from flabby muscles and a decreased sperm count. He felt pressure to resort to doping in order to increase his weight. He was emulating his friends who persuaded him to take the drugs.
“While I was training, several of my friends persuaded me to take a pill. I did it so that I would could stay friends with them and be more like them. My coach gave me 100 grams of Dianabol. But when I left the building, my weight had decreased.”
“I told the captain that I had taken the testosterone booster Dianabol, just like my friends, to accelerate my muscle growth. But when I took it, my body got weaker. The pill caused inflammation in my stomach and back. When I saw that, I went to the doctor and he told me I had a low sperm count.”
It is the desire to build muscle mass, as well as pressure from friends and others, that lead athletes to take up doping, without any thought as to what the consequences will be. All this is taking place in a country where the use and circulation of steroids is not criminalized and many pharmacies ignore the requirement to present a prescription in order to buy them.
But the spread of steroids in sports centers and fitness clubs is evident among all age groups. The biggest danger lies in doping among those between 16 to 25 years, says trainer Othman Samrin.
Coaches and athletes are reluctant to speak about the issue, so it is difficult to determine exactly how many people use the drugs. However, Samrin, who has 18 years of professional experience, estimates that the rate of steroid usage at fitness and sports centers is “around 90 percent.”
Over the course of two months, this journalist observed steroid use on a wide scale, encouraged by trainers and directors at a number of body-building centers. There are about 600 such centers in this country, serving 100,00 athletes representing a wide range of ages and backgrounds.
Faris’s case is now in the hands of the General Prosecutor for North Amman. His father Mohammad Al-Maiti filed the case against his trainer. He is charged with “causing the death” of Faris, according to his lawyer. “We said that he was the one who gave him the lethal needle because there is no penalty in the penal code for somebody who gives steroids to another person.
Before this tragedy, at least six other athletes are known to have died in the last two decades as a result of taking steroids. However, their parents did not bring their cases to court, according to Mohammad Al-Kilani, president of the Jordanian Sports Union.
“It doesn’t matter who gives you the steroids,” says Mohammad Jamal, 24, “especially if you get to the stage where you believe you need to grow your muscles. They take steroids so that they can keep flexing their muscles.”
He went on: “I’ll be frank with you. It gets to the point where things get out of control. Be it by needle or using pills or proteins, it becomes more than your body can handle. The most important thing is loosing my beautiful body.”
The phenomenon of steroids and sports hormones began to surface in Jordanian society in the early 1990s, says Mohammad Al-Kilani, president of the Jordanian Sports Federation. The Federation was established in the 1970s. Weight lifting broke off as a separate organization in 1994
What is going on in these centers?
Inside a body-building center (not the one used by Faris), the author of this investigation spent a month under cover to document how many athletes use steroids.
The first thing this journalist noticed was a man nervously looking around a room filled with the clanking sounds of iron weights and the noise of athletes who were sweating profusely. The resulting shine highlighted their muscles, well-hardened by training.
Once the man was sure that he wasn’t being watched, his coach whispered something in his ear, and he headed toward the bathrooms, which were empty at the time.
A few moments later the coach followed him in and securely closed the door. Just prior he had pulled a syringe and package out of his pocket. When he asked about it later, this reporter learned that it contained banned hormones, a swab of cotton and some alcohol.
The whole process ended quickly. The pair soon emerged from the bathroom, not saying a word to each other. As it turns out, the bathrooms are the preferred place to administer the secret injections. If they are not available they go to the top of the stairs that lead to the roof, as they provide a good alternative that is also away from the athletes.
There at the top of the stairs amidst the accumulated dust, dirt and poor lighting, the trainer gives the athlete the injection. He keeps his eyes toward the bottom of the stairs, in case someone should come up unexpectedly. Despite their efforts to keep what they were doing secret, the rest of the athletes knew what was going on.
This reporter noted that 14 to 18 players (aged 18 to 30) practiced doping with the help of their coaches.
During of the first days after he joined the center, one of the trainers indicated to this journalist that he could give him steroids that he guaranteed would accelerate muscle growth. Meanwhile another coach warned him against doing so.
Ironically, this journalist later learned that the two coaches were father and son.
At first the coach (the father) did not specify what steroids he advocated, but he later said that it was “mild and oil-based.”
Like a doctor, prescribing medicine and how to use it, he said “you should take two or three injections a day with a meal. Within a month your weight should increase by five or six kilograms at least.”
Then he mentioned the name of the drug – Landirone – and said “it hasn’t caused any health problems, so don’t worry about it.”
The other coach (the son) tried to keep the author of this investigation away from this type of drugs, warning us that they would destroy the liver, as he put it.
He gave us a simple explanation: “This steroid feeds on proteins, which normally concentrate in the liver. If proteins are scarce in the body, it will eat away at the liver in order to strengthen the muscles. You have to think about this. Otherwise you will destroy yourself. You bring about your own end.”
Doping and its consequences
Dr. Kamal Al-Hadidi, a toxicologist and president of the Jordanian Anti-Doping Organization, lists the consequences of taking steroids. Apart from the possibility of death, side-effects include “arteriosclerosis, change in blood pressure, increased aggressiveness, testicular atrophy, breast enlargement in men, erectile dysfunction, stroke, heart attack, and liver cancer.”
The most frequently abused drugs are “Deca Durabolin, Winstrol, and Dianabol, taken either by injection or by mouth,” says Al-Hadidi.
Steroids come into the country in two ways: One is hormones that are imported for medical purposes and then abused. Steroids and hormones also come via smuggling routes from neighboring countries.
Mohammad Al-Ababna, a senior pharmacist, warns that some of the drugs “are imported to treat hormonal imbalances. It has a medical purpose, but athletes abuse it for other reasons.” Al-Ababna adds that most importers use licensed and registered means to acquire the medicine. “I don’t worry about that. The problem is in how they are abused,” he said.
Mohammad Al-Sabbagh, owner of the Sabbagh Pharmacy, the wholesale importer for “Deca Durabolin” and “Sustanon” that can only be prescribed by a doctor, says that pharmacies are responsible for the sale of drugs to athletes.“We deal directly with the pharmacies. We do not sell these drugs to athletes,” he said.
The dangers of smuggling
In addition to the hormonal drugs they can acquire at a pharmacy, some athletes who really want to increase they muscle size buy them from trainers or other vendors, who in turn get them from smugglers.
According to the owner of one fitness center, the drugs have different origins, coming into the Kingdom from neighboring countries. The center owner, who did not want to be identified, said “I am aware of the large amount of smuggling into this country. But now smuggling has become more difficult because of the problems in Syria and Lebanon.”
This smuggler, he said, was collaborating with one of the workers at the border, to facilitate the entry of containers into the country. Now that border restrictions have become tighter, it is impossible to do that,” the center owner said.
According to the head of the Anti-Smuggling Directorate, Col. Damen Fawaz, “any person found to be involved in any smuggling or illegal activity will suffer damage to their professional reputation. If a person is investigated and found to be doing so, we will not hesitate to punish them.”
For his part, Tahsin Al-Abadi, inspector general at the Food and Drug Administration, confirmed the discovery of drugs that were “unauthorized and smuggled and circulated in the country.” He noted that “the fact that they are smuggled makes it difficult for us to track them.”
The author of this investigation videotaped doping vials and material that had been dumped in the trash.
Available and Accessible
During a series of visits to ten pharmacies and some food supplement vendors, it became clear that steroids and hormones are easily accessible.
It is true that some food supplement vendors do not sell such substances, which are classified as a drug, or at least this appeared to be the case among some of the vendors we focused on.
We asked one of the vendors to recommend to us those drugs that were known to have guaranteed results when it comes to increasing muscle growth. He replied: “Take Deca and Testa. And there are two Iranian types. If you want we can recommend those to you.”
He added: “It should be the captain who administers the injections. But if you did not buy it from him, he may refuse, so you may have to turn to a friend to do it for you.”
He told us that he was willing to overlook some of the rules while selling steroids to this journalist. “I am willing to do this even though I don’t like the injection, and I don’t like to sell it because I have heard that it can be harmful.”
This is how it worked at this store selling food supplements. The situation at pharmacies was not any better. Forty-five of 50 pharmacies visited by this journalist in different regions – including Nuseir, Hashemi Al-Shamali, Jubeiha, Nazha, Jabal Qasur, Tabarbur, and Shafa’a Budran – were willing to sell us Deca Durabolin, Sustanon and genetic hormones without a prescription.
These were the results of our tour of pharmacies: 38 offered us steroids, sold them to us, and did not consider that there could be harmful side effects from using them. Seven pharmacies sold us steroids while warning us about harmful side effects. Four sold us the steroids but made it clear that we were supposed to have a prescription. One pharmacy said they had no steroids and they refuse to sell them because it sees them to have multiple harmful consequences.
According to Dr. Kamal Al-Hadidi, the genetic hormones and growth hormones that the pharmacies agreed to sell to us without a prescription, can cause inflammation of the intestine and heart, as well as other serious damage to other parts of the body. The hormone is meant to be given to people who suffer from stunting or other problems, to help them grow naturally.
The single pharmacy that refused to sell us steroids without a prescription justified their position by saying “It is forbidden to take these drugs without a prescription from a specialist. And the reason for the prohibition is people like you” – meaning bodybuilders.
When we went to Mohamad Al-Ababna, the pharmacy chairman, we learned that he tried to make exceptions for some pharmacies that sold steroids without a prescription, despite his assertion that it is a violation.
“When someone comes into a pharmacy and asks for Deca Durabolin, for instance, it shows that they know what it is,” said Al-Ababna. “And sometimes if the pharmacists sees that the person knows what it is they are asking for, then they don’t have to have a doctor prescribe it for them. Sometimes this mistake is made in my pharmacies.”
But Al-Ababna stressed that dispensing such a drug without a prescription “is not allowed in any way.”
For his part, Tahsin Al-Abadi, inspector general at the Food and Drug Administration, said his department has not penalized any pharmacies for dispensing steroids without a prescription.
“We did not receive any complaints about pharmacies selling steroids and hormones for non-medical purposes,” he said. “Based on our investigations, there has been no violation of this kind.”
Al-Abadi said that his institution has been making periodic visits to pharmacies to monitor their sales of hormones and steroids.
As for the sports centers, some of them confirmed that they sell the drugs to athletes, even if they had sworn they would not do so.
“Sometimes we work in cooperation with the security services in order to gain access to these centers,” said Al-Abadi. “These are places that are not permitted to dispense these drugs. We have done several investigations, but we did not punish anybody.”
The author of this investigation videotaped doping vials and material that had been dumped in the trash.
Weak deterrence laws
The lack of laws that criminalize steroids and their circulation, says Dr. Kamal Al-Hadidi of the Anti-Doping Organisation, means that there are not any serious efforts to deal with them throughout the Arab world. He contrasts the situation in the Arab world with France, which treats steroids and hormones in the same manner as illegal drugs.
Al-Hadidi confirmed that there have been no cases where trainers who sold steroids have been sent to court. But the Anti-Doping Organisation — part of the Jordanian Olympic Committee and draws its by-laws from the International Olympic Committee — has no authority over sports centers and athletes, no right to enter centers to investigate, and no right to test athletes apart from those who participate in regional and international competition. As a result, there is a wide legal gap when it comes to combating doping.
The case of Faris and his death details the untold story of doping and how it is managed and how the courts are doing nothing about it.
Faris’s father, the engineer Mohammad Al-Miati, had an opinion about his son’s death even before the official lab results came back. “They gave my son an injection and it is the doping is what killed him, even if it helped him earn a few dinars,” he said, burning with anger. “I hold the club and his friends responsible.”
Faris’s trainer, who is the accused in his case, denies any involvement in Faris’s death, pending publication of the final results of the investigation.
Amad Abdallat, a medical forensics consultant at the University of Jordan who examined Faris’s body, stated that the cause of death was “a severe hemorrhage in the digestive system, but I could not determine the cause of this bleeding. I cannot say that steroids were responsible for his death.”
The author of this report attempted to obtain a copy of the medical report, but Abdallat refused provide it, claiming that the case was still pending before the court.
Dr. Mamoun Al-Hadidi, previously head of the Forensics Committee and leader of the Hippocratic Society said that in his opinion “there are links between disorders of the digestive and respiratory systems, blood, and these hormones.”
“Labs in Jordan are not capable of analyzing steroid and hormone levels,” Dr. Al-Hadidi said. “I cannot predict what the results will be.”
When we asked results about of the investigation, the only response we got was from Lt. Col. Mohammad Al-Khatib, Information Officer at the Public Security Directorate, who said they are “awaiting the results.”
Multiple cases – and the law is silent
Mohammad Al-Kilani, president of the Bodybuilder Federation, confirmed that people are taking hormones and steroids in gyms and fitness centers. Oversight is weak due to the large number of organizations that monitor them, and there is very little authority in the law to fight the abuse of steroids.
“We have a responsibility of oversight and implementation,” said Al-Kilani. “The reason is that fitness and sports centers operate under two umbrellas, and that is not healthy.”
He added: “The fitness centers are members of the Sports Medicine Federation. The federation is a specific type of organization that is not necessarily responsible for the centers that hold membership and bear its name. This division leads to the lack of monitoring of steroid use.”
For his part, Nayed Saadeh, president of the Sports Medicine Federation, rejected the idea that fitness clubs should join the Bodybuilder Federation. He insisted that these clubs should remain under the umbrella of the Sports Medicine Federation, as they have been since 2003.
Meanwhile, Lana Al-Jaghbir, president of the Jordanian Olympic Committee, accused the Bodybuilder Federation of negligence when it comes to combating the practice of doping in centers under its purview. She strongly opposed the inclusion of these clubs in the JOC’s mandate.
Al-Jaghbir, who provided the Union of Body Builders with their by-laws, drawn from those of the Olympic Committee, said “we have established common rules to combat doping. They encompass all the federations in Jordan that have pledged their commitment to combat doping. The Bodybuilder Federation has failed to implement them, and the union is fully responsible for the prevalence of doping in its member centers.”
The head of the Jordanian Anti-Doping Organisation, Kamal Al-Hadidi, pointed to a draft bill that his organization, in cooperation with the Jordanian Olympic Committee, submitted to the government in 2010. The bill aims to establish an anti-doping body, especially since Jordanian signed an international treaty which obliges the country to effectively combat doping.
The draft law calls on the Legislation and Opinion Bureau to establish a specialized anti-doping body. The committee would be composed of all stakeholders food, medicine, pharmacies, the anti-doping, and the monitoring of doctors, among others. They would work together in the effort to combat doping.
But the draft law has been stalled at the Legislation and Opinion Bureau, which is part of the Office of the Prime Minister. “In the absence of such a law,” says Al-Hadidi, “there are no punishments for offenders, and international laws only apply to athletes participating in officially registered tournaments.”
The regulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency, which are applied to its member athletes, aim to “eliminate performance enhancing drugs among athletes. Those who violate the rules, in addition to the two-year suspension for evidence of possession or consumption of a banned substance, can face the most severe punishment which is to be banned from the sport for life.”
There are no statistics to tell us how many have died as a result of abusing steroids, says Dr. Amad Al-Abdalat, a forensic medicine consultant. “They never recorded the cause of death of these weightlifters,” he said.
By contrast, Mohammad Al-Kilani, president of the Bodybuilder Federation, acknowledged that there have been deaths that were not officially registered. “Of course there were cases were people tried not to talk about it so that it wouldn’t ruin the reputation of the sport. These cases weren’t officially registered because they are punishable by law.”
Meanwhile, Faris’s case remains pending before the court …
This investigation was completed with support from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) under the investigations unit of Radio al Balad.