Steroids (aka: "the juice," "vitamin S") are a polarizing, hot topic these days. Public scrutiny over Olympic and professional athletes using is perhaps at its pinnacle, especially since the Major League Baseball scandal and Marion Jones's confession. Olympic lifting has also come under this magnifying glass; rightfully so, as there is overwhelming evidence that the international scene is riddled with drugs. But even amidst all this, I contend that elite competitors within USA Weightlifting are generally clean.
First, a basic description on how anabolic steroids work. Performance (perhaps better named "recovery") enhancing drugs increase your body's ability to rebuild muscle tissue after a workout. They allow you to do more lifts with heavier weights in less time, decreasing the normal recovery time that is crucial to successful training. Consequently you can train at a higher volume, which leads to more muscle mass and more opportunities to develop your nervous system.
Technically, you can reap many of the benefits of steroids prior to competition then detox to pass a drug test. You won't necessarily be able to lift at the same level, however, as you will not be able to maintain your prior training volume during the detox phase, and there is always a psychological component in knowing that you're not on steroids anymore. Because of this, a likely steroid user would exhibit the some or all of the following: abnormally high training volume/intensity, large gains over a short period of time without accompanying gains in technique, and significantly lower or inconsistent competition lifts compared to training.
In spite of all this, why do I still say that the U.S. is a clean nation? Because USA Weightlifting took a strong stance on this issue and put standards in place that are very hard to get around while training. If you medal in a national meet then you are subject to mandatory drug testing, and you may be randomly tested at those meets regardless of your standing. In addition, top lifters are entered into the Out of Competition (OOC) Testing pool, requiring them to provide the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) with information about where they are every single day so they can be tested without notice.
In other words, you cannot train as an elite weightlifter in the U.S. while on drugs. There are no "designer" steroids you can take to get around this. The idea that U.S. lifters are rich and can afford such things is laughable; USA Weightlifting is a cash-strapped national governing body and U.S. lifters have almost zero financial incentive to compete. As of this writing we don't even have the funds to send a full team to the 2011 Pan American Championships. One of the most common career fields for lifting athletes and coaches is fitness, hardly lucrative.
The toughest gains in weightlifting, as in any sport, come after you have already attained a high level of proficiency. To drop the performance enhancing drugs once you have gotten to the level of OOC Testing is to drop your ability to train the way you used to, and subsequently your gains will fall precipitously. To deliberately stay away from USAW and competitions that might get you enrolled in the OOC Testing pool is rare, and it is so obvious that it does not get ignored.
In effect the U.S. has been shooting themselves in the foot in regards to international competition. In our heyday, before we started testing this way, we were an international force, but we haven't won a men's Olympic medal since 1984. Other countries are known for working with their athletes to pass drug tests rather than trying to keep them from cheating. There may be many other reasons why we aren't successful on the international stage, including our society's relative lack of interest in the sport and the draw of the strongest people to sports like football where there is money and fame to be had. But don't let anyone fool you who says that other countries know more technical or training secrets than we do; all of us reaching for the top train very hard. We deliberately choose workout schedules that give us the maximum intensity possible while still getting the recovery we desperately need.
I wholeheartedly agree with this strict level of testing, even to our own competitive detriment. Besides cheating being against the spirit of the sport, testing at least creates the possibility of a level playing field. You should not need to endanger your long-term health to succeed at your sport. And this is why I would never, ever choose to take steroids. And while a young, impressionable athlete may be lulled into thinking they need steroids to succeed, I am proud to say that East Coast Gold and Leo Totten in particular does not tolerate performance enhancers; I have even seen Leo exclude people from competing as a part of our team because he suspected they were using.
And still we are national champions for five years running.