Why you should care

Questions about the safety and fairness of supplements are getting louder. 

It’s all about the edge work. In the quest for athletic glory, it’s not about how you play the bulk of the game but how you play the last few seconds. Or the first few seconds. The point is that athletic games are won mostly by all of the little things that go right — by mere points and seconds, and thousands of casual training days that are parsed into hours and hours of hard-fought seconds.

Which is why so many athletes — professional and amateur — have flocked to the $32.4 billion vitamin and supplement market, which promises that edge. Even outside the well-known creatine, the opportunities for chemical enhancement are everywhere, if you know what to ask for: adrafinil, bromantane, clenbuterol, phenotropil, ribose and ephedrine, which is not as over-the-counter easy to grab as it once was. (Thanks, crystal meth!) These legal supplements remain on the rise, growing at a rate of 6 percent a year in the United States, and they live in a regulatory black hole: Companies don’t need FDA approval to market their drugs, and most are sold over the counter.

Does this pharmacopoeia deserve its shady rep? I don’t think so. Indeed, when you survey the spread of various pills and powders all claiming some variation of “bigger, stronger, faster, better,” the most reasonable question seems to be, “Why not?” And until we get an answer based on evidence, you can believe the athletes of America will be taking their vitamins, minerals, pills and powders and answering, “Why not, indeed.”

Among them is Damien Noorbakhsh, muay Thai boxer, coach and personal trainer. “The window for any sort of athletic glory, even if you’re a weekend warrior, is tiny,” he says. Which is why, regarding supplements, Noorbakhsh advises a full-speed-ahead approach. “Well, why would you want to do anything badly?” he asks. “And just in case you’re tempted to think I’m crazy, remember these are all legal. So I’m not that crazy.”

Which is not to say that any of this promises to be safe. The FDA puts the burden of supplement safety onto the manufacturers, which may not be the most effective strategy for safety. Earlier this year, an investigation by the New York attorney general found that some store-brand supplements sold by Target, Walmart and GNC did not contain the ingredients listed on their labels — but did contain plenty of other unlisted ingredients. (The companies are contesting the results.) A couple years back, one particularly outlandish case involved supplement designer Matt Cahill, who hawked a homemade steroid — tested on himself and friends — that caused liver damage, according to a USA Today investigation. Declining our request for comment, a spokesperson for Cahill said: “Matt has been railroaded, and continues to be. But our recent history with reporters has left us with a bad taste in our mouth.”

And still. The growth of the market and the stories of athletes attest to our search for something more profound — edge, glory — and for many, supplements are a calculated risk that just about always seems worth it. Viewed this way, the drugs and the risks they entail are part of the glory, part of the sacrifice you make to reach it. And that’s despite the argument that an over-the-counter chemical edge is tantamount to cheating. Let me put it this way: If everyone is taking them and you’re not, and you lose — well, you’re just a loser.

Commenting isn’t necessarily FDA-approved, either, but at least it won’t give you liver damage.

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