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No longer a secret
Benoit tragedy forces hard look at steroid use
By KEVIN ENGSTROM - Sun Media
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Chris Benoit. (Sun Media file/Perry Mah)


So-called 'roid rage' is alleged to be the fuel that drove wrestler Chris Benoit to kill his wife and child. He then took his own life.

It used to be pro wrestling's dark secret.

But allegations steroids provided the fuel that ultimately led Chris Benoit to kill his wife and seven-year-old son shone light on what grappling fans had known for years: there's an unusually high number of wrestlers in the past decade who have died at relatively young ages.

All told, at least 27 prominent performers have died young within the past decade; 24 of them have worked for Vince McMahon's World Wrestling Entertainment at some point in their career. One wrestling news website suggested more than 100 have died young within the past 20 years.

The list includes such mat stars as Benoit's best friend Eddie Guerrero, (Mr. Perfect) Curt Hennig, (British Bulldog) Davey Boy Smith and Miss Elizabeth as well as a host of other lesser stars.

They died in many different ways but the cause for most has been drug-related: steroids and prescription painkillers.

"I've lost a lot of friends and acquaintances in the last few years. Something like 14 or 17 wrestlers in the past four years have died. That's unbelievable," said Jacques Rougeau, a Montreal native who worked for McMahon for a decade during the 1980s and '90s.

"Twenty years ago, steroids were in style but nobody knew what the consequences would be. Now we do."

WWE officials declined an interview request with Sun Media on the topic last Thursday.

Alex Marvez, a syndicated wrestling columnist for Scripps Howard News Service, said news of the high number of deaths has been under-reported until now because covering the industry is hard to define.

"Sport reporters don't cover it because it's not a sport and entertainment reporters don't want to cover it because they think it's low-brow, which it is because that's how WWE has made it," said Marvez. "So there's not a lot of people who pay close attention to what's going on."

But publicity from the Benoit tragedy and allegations the Edmonton native's "roid rage" may have led to the killings has brought the issue of drug-related deaths into the mainstream.

McMahon isn't responsible for wrestlers choosing to inject themselves with steroids, but Marvez said the promoter has created an environment where wrestlers believe the drugs are necessary to become a top star. Only a handful of headliners within the past 20 years, such as Ric Flair, had relatively average physiques, said Marvez.

"For example, the night after everyone found out about Benoit, the WWE had Batista, perhaps the biggest and most muscular guy in WWE history, win the main event," said Marvez. "What kind of message does that send to the wrestlers in the back watching?"

To succeed, wrestlers often need to be genetic freaks. To get there, steroids are an option a majority of performers appear to take.

Rougeau said when he was with WWE, about 75% of all wrestlers were taking or had experimented with steroids, and there's nothing to suggest things have changed. He and his brother Raymond, who were tag partners, once talked about taking steroids, noting a muscle-bound freak of nature like the Ultimate Warrior was one of the company's biggest stars at the time despite having trouble performing basic moves.

"After about three hours, we decided steroids weren't worth it," said Rougeau, adding he's happy with the decision. "I've never regretted it."

It would be bad enough if steroids were the only drug wrestlers took, but for many it isn't.

The rigours of wrestling several times a week takes its toll on a grappler's body. Many refuse to take time off to properly heal, preferring to take prescription painkillers to deal with the various aches. The combination is already potentially deadly, but some will add to it further with booze and other drugs.

"These people are mixing their drugs without really knowing the effect it will have on them," said Dick Pound, head of the World Anti-Doping Agency. "Sometimes it's lethal."

It's not the first time the WWE has been confronted with a steroids scandal. McMahon stood trial in 1994 after being accused of distributing steroids to his wrestlers. He was acquitted, though he admitted to taking steroids himself in the 1980s.

More recently, an Alabama compounding pharmacy was raided by investigators last fall after allegedly providing anabolic steroids to athletes from several sports, including many past and present WWE stars.

But the Benoit case may be the tipping point.

Georgia investigators raided the offices of Benoit's doctor last week as they continue to investigate what role, if any, steroids played in the killings after investigators found steroids in Benoit's home.

And U.S. Sen. John Isakson, a Republican from Georgia, has instructed his staff to gather information on all the deaths to determine whether a Senate hearing is needed to consider regulating wrestling.

"I love the grandstanding of Congress on lots of issues. But are you going to push for regulation of the Barnum and Bailey circus, too?" said Marvez, noting WWE is far more likely to change if the company's bottom line is affected.

"I think WWE will respond if they start to see sponsors pull their ads and stockholders selling off their shares."

RELATED LINKS

  • Chris Benoit tragedy news section
  • Chris Benoit biography and story archive