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Pumping irony: Chris Bell’s look at steroids in sports

by Roger Brigham
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Thursday Jun 5, 2008

When ""Bigger, Stronger, Faster" writer and director Chris Bell decided to mine his conflicted personal views and experiences in the world of underground steroid use and employ his family as a unifying element, his folks and siblings were eager to join in. "They were excited to be part of a dialogue about such an important issue," Bell told Edge.

"I told Mom, 'There's a dirty little family secret that will come out in this movie. It's nothing you'd want to kill me for, but it's out there and it won't make you happy.'"

The family secret comes out late in in the movie when Chris tells his mother that her sons had or were using anabolic steroids - and that the first source for the brothers had been their uncle. There are tears in her eyes as she realizes the limits of the protection the values she had instilled in her sons could provide. "You're killing me with this," she tells Chris.

That moment, tucked deep into the movie, is the nugget around which Bell's documentary is formed: the tugs of the heart in wanna-be athletes' minds as they strive to be excellent, they strive to be ethical, and most of all, strive to be American.

"I made the film as even handed as I could," Bell said as we sat among a pile of opened suitcases in his San Francisco hotel room, just hours after his flight had arrived too late for the film's first Bay Area screening. " I wanted everyone to be able to take something away from it."

For most viewers, the film will be a voyage of discovery of things they have never known about steroids or thought they knew but knew wrong. For Bell, who co-wrote the documentary with Alex Buono and Tamsin Rawady, there were other more personal voyages of self-discovery.

Such as meeting longtime AIDS survivor Jeff Taylor, who speaks at length in the film about the role steroids played in saving his life after his T-cell count had dropped to 3 and his body was wasting away.

Bell had met Taylor after being introduced by "Built to Survive" author Mike Mooney and wanted to know more about the use of steroids in treating AIDS.

"After the interview, the camera kept rolling," Bell told Edge. "This part didn't make it into the film. But they asked me, 'How do you feel?' It was very ... emotional. I never knew anyone that I knew had AIDS before. And I realized I still had this stigma in my mind. I mean, I was afraid to have a glass of water. That's the way it was told to us when it first started happening, and I had been carrying that around inside."

Bell looks like a cross between Will Sasso and Sean Astin: what Rudy or Sam Gamgee would look like if they spent their lives in a gym.

Bell looks like a cross between Will Sasso and Sean Astin: what Rudy or Sam Gamgee would look like if they spent their lives in a gym. He's a big guy who loves to workout, loves his family and loves to eat. He travels with a laminated picture of X-rays from his hip replacement surgery a year ago and asked me questions about my recovery from the same operation.

Bell started his weight training as a child.

"I started powerlifting as a hobby," he said. "I'd see Hulk Hogan and Arnold Schwarzenegger and I wanted to look like that. That's what you do as a kid. But I didn't look like that, I was always kind of fat, and it made me insecure."

Bell moved to Southern California so he would be able to lift at Gold's Gym in Venice Beach. As he debated using the same steroids his brothers had used to pursue their football, pro wrestling and powerlifting goals, he found himself morally torn.

"I always thought it would lead me to something else," he said of his powerlifting. "I almost got into filmmaking by accident. I took a video course in college because I thought it would be easy, and a music video I made got an award that was judged by Francis Ford Coppola."

His bottom line on anabolic steroids?

"When you're young, you just shouldn't do them," he said. "I don't think they should be used in sports that prohibit them. But for other athletes - it should be a choice. As Plato would argue, don't think something immoral just because it is illegal."

He argued the worst problems occur when steroids are used by people who are not getting reliable advice, are not being monitored, and are using the drugs to excess. I mentioned I knew many people who felt the same way about abortion, that outlawing abortions did not stop them from occurring, but caused them to occur in unsafe circumstances.

"Somebody else said that to me," Bell said. "They're driving underground a behavior that people desire. And it's hard for people to get good medical advice under those circumstances. There isn't much trust out there."

Roger Brigham, a freelance writer and communications consultant, is the San Francisco Editor of EDGE. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Eduardo.


Comments

  • , 2010-07-29 21:18:15

    Chris, You made a good documentary--however you have exposed you and your brothers as hypocrites and frauds. None of you had the courage to face facts and admit that you are all frauds. Your mother and father were the only people in your film that showed any integrity. You and you brothers are pathetic and shameful sons that are self indulgent vain girly men. Your father is more of a man the 3 of you combined. You should be ashamed of yourself and your brothers. Try truth instead of rationalization .


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