Guided by the want to get fit and build body mass, many of Ethiopia’s urban youths are using unregulated, and possibly, illegal products to forward and quicken their dream. The government, on its part, seems to be oblivious to the fact or unwilling to take a deeper look. But the damages could be long-lived and thus need serious consideration. Though getting fit is an applauded endeavor, the shortcuts taken by youths to this end arise from both push and pull factors. EBR’s Abiy Wendifraw explores.
Bizuayehu Tolosa, a trainer at Alem Fitness Center, encourages gym members to consult with him on almost anything they want. He admits that people, even non-gym members, approach him looking for exercise-related guidance. What most of these people have in common is “a deep desire to shortcuts”. Many look for immediate improvements in their performance, health, and physique. According to Bizuayehu, these are normal desires. “But recently, people are coming for crazy advices,” he says. Youngsters who want to look bigger are visiting gymnasiums and asking for ‘vitamins’.
“They call it vitamin but do not mean it. They are looking for something different, may be a drug. And now we are hearing that an increasing number of young people are using these drugs which could lead to unwanted physical and psychological changes,” Bizuayehu adds. “Young men think that being huge would secure them a job as bodyguards. But this is not just the issue of bodybuilders or men in general. Months back, a couple of girls who wanted to gain some weight asked me if I could help. I remember one of the girls told me she needed it to fulfill one of the requirements to be a cabin crew member.”
Tenaw Nigussie, a bodybuilder and gym trainer, admits that taking supplement substances is become fashion among gym goers. But he argues that there is no evidence indicating people are using steroids. “To the best of my knowledge, steroids are very expensive and difficult to find in other countries.”
“That does not mean everything is okay,” says Tenaw. “Bodybuilders tend to use different products immediately after exercise sessions. There is no way they can check the product’s quality. And most of the time, they do not know the dosage amount and recommended frequency.”
Because Ethiopian National Anti-Doping Organization (ETH NADO) targets sport disciplines with domestic and international competitions as its priority, the trend is yet to be formally investigated. But, according to Mekonnen Yidersal, ETH NADO Director General, bodybuilding as a sport is vulnerable to performance enhancing drugs. “Our risk assessment confirms it. But after doing tests, we have seen no rule violations by bodybuilders. We are receiving more information of wrongdoings in this sport. But we are yet to prove it in the laboratory.”
Though he encourages people to keep it natural, Tenaw understands why many bodybuilders fall for substances. “After exercising, bodybuilders need to get enough protein proportional to their weight. It would be preferable to have a diet plan through which the person gets the required grams of protein. But for most of these young men, it is not practical. They have to find it within some 30 minutes. Cooking shortly after exercises is not possible. Most of them cannot afford to eat in restaurants. Counting calories is another unpopular task. They go for the simple option of taking the unchecked ‘supplements’ regularly.”
Yet this simple option seems to have already left some with complicated medical conditions. Alongside the uncomfortable physical and psychological changes, some are facing critical health problems. “A young man I knew that was taking unknown substances for the past six years is now suffering from hypertension and heart problems. He is just 26. Anyone could see how fast he was growing and becoming muscular back then. Now he cannot even exercise,” says Tenaw.
There is no official place to buy the products. But Bizuayehu blames some gymnasiums that are offering some products on demand. “This is irresponsible. People should stop this madness. At least health professionals should be involved and people should understand what they are taking.”
Those who supply the products (tablets, creams, and powders) are not formal business people. They use their contacts in gymnasiums and advertise through social media. “You can see how fast it is becoming common. There must be a way to stop it. People should speak-up about it and the side effects,” says Bizuayehu.
Though supplements do not always contain prohibited substances, some products might remain in the market even after WADA later prohibits some chemicals found in the products. In Ethiopia, Protein Shake Powder (WHEY) is among the most common products used by bodybuilders. A kilogram of WHEY in gold and platinum standards costs ETB2,500 to 3,500 on the internet. USN Mass Gainer is another product which is advertised on websites for stimulating protein synthesis that leads to faster muscle growth.
One can be an amateur bodybuilder not involved in competition when using the prohibited substances. But if the substances in use/ possession are on the annually updated WADA prohibited list, the person would be subject to both anti-doping and criminal charges. “Having no confirmed cases so far does not make the area clean. We will investigate further,” says Kifle Seife, Director of the Education and Research Directorate at ETH NADO. “This is not about cleaning competitions. We need to keep the sport clean, and we have to keep it natural.”.
9th Year • Feb.16 – Mar.15 2020 • No. 83