Dick smith

Former Olympic trainer Dick Smith (at the York Barbell Museum) saw what steroids could do in the early 1960s. (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor / March 12, 2008)

Was the doctor a genius, delighted with the creations that sprung from his mind, or a hopeless egotist?

Louis Riecke wasn't sure.

But something made him want to believe in John Ziegler, the big scientist with an even bigger ego. Riecke had pumped iron competitively for more than a decade when he met Ziegler in York, Pa., the mecca of American weightlifting for much of the 20th century.

Riecke had always been an excellent lifter but never quite among the world elite. Ziegler said he could change that.

So a few months after their encounter in late 1960, Riecke traveled from his home in New Orleans to Ziegler's office in Olney. In his garage, the doctor laid out a new regimen that would involve pushing against immovable surfaces, hypnotism, an improved diet and some little pink pills.

"I didn't know anything about them," Riecke said of the pills. "I know I sound naive, but I really didn't."

What Riecke couldn't have known was that he was an early test subject for a substance that would irrevocably change athletic competition worldwide. As it would for many others, Dianabol, an anabolic steroid, boosted him to the top of his sport with shocking rapidity.

But the spread of steroids in America did not hatch as a grand conspiracy. It began with a few lifters who wanted to get better and an ambitious Maryland doctor who thought he could expand human potential.

"It all goes back to York and the experiments that Ziegler was doing," said John Fair, a professor at Georgia College and State University who has written extensively on the rise of weight training and steroid use. "Other sports picked up on it, but his experiments were the beginning."

"He was sort of this Dr. Frankenstein, creating a monster that would overwhelm sports," Fair said.

But according to his correspondence and those who knew him, Ziegler was hardly fixated on the little pink pills as a miraculous key to human improvement. Instead, he was a relentlessly creative thinker, always on the lookout for the next method, device or substance that would make men into supermen.

"The steroids were an adjunct," said Dick Smith, a former trainer for six Olympic teams, who was based at the York gym and who befriended Ziegler. "It's not fair to Doc, because he got blasted as the guy who started steroids. Well, he didn't start steroids."

Big personality
Fair saw in the doctor a mentality he has glimpsed in elite weightlifters. "They think big," he said. "They are big. They marry big wives, drive big cars, live in big houses. They have that superman mentality."

Riecke, now 82, recalls Ziegler much that way. "He was a very forceful type of person," the former world-record holder said. "He kind of felt he could will anything on you. He was way out there with some of his ideas, but you wanted to follow him anyway."

Ziegler, a strapping 6 feet 4, began studying medicine after he suffered grievous wounds to his shoulder and scalp as a Marine in the Pacific in World War II. His recovery inspired him to learn the craft so he could help other soldiers with rehabilitation.

In the course of rebuilding his own physique, he became interested in weight training. At some point in the early 1950s, Ziegler began injecting himself and fellow trainees with testosterone.

This was not a new idea. Scientists had learned to produce synthetic testosterone almost two decades earlier, and the Nazis researched the substance.

But the initial results did not impress Ziegler. He then met a bodybuilder named John Grimek, who had competed in the 1936 Olympics and was a close associate of Bob Hoffman, who had run the national lifting program for years out of his York gym.

Through his connection to Grimek, Ziegler became physician for a team that traveled to the 1954 world championships in Vienna, Austria.