Lionel Messi is one of the greatest footballers of this generation, if not the best of all time. He dribbles past his markers for fun, passes the ball and scores goals with consummate ease.
Those are things he has done for almost 27 years, his age. But had it not been for food supplements the Argentine would have, most probably, remained just one of the many promising talents, which never saw the light of day.
During his infancy, Messi suffered a Growth Hormone Disorder (GHD) an illness which stunted his growth.
It is often called idiopathic short stature, but its effects transcend just being frail and shorter than average.
Messi’s parents sought a solution but a $900 (Shs2.7m)a-month was too much for them. Not even River Plate or Newell’s Old Boys—the biggest clubs in Argentina—and for which Messi played as a child, could afford the expense, his promising talent, notwithstanding.
Messi needed daily injections of a Human Growth Hormone (HGH), a supplement which would later help him not only develop a greater height, but also deal with issues such as skin and teeth problems, poor vision and lower immunity.
Before diagnosis, Messi stood at 4’2”. As an adult, he is 5’7”, the average height of an Argentine male.
The experience of local sportsmen
Ivan Byekwaso’s name is synonymous with the sport of bodybuilding in Uganda. He has won several accolades here and abroad. He told us that access to genuine supplements, among other things, shaped and sustained his career.
“It took me a lot of effort to change from being a mere bouncer to a genuine bodybuilder; much as I was working weights really hard from different gyms,” Byekwaso, who won two world medals last year, recounts. “But when a mzungu friend gave me some supplements, everything changed immediately.”
Within three months, he had gained over eight kilogrammes, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Why athletes use supplements
When the Rugby Cranes were going for the Confederation of Africa Rugby (CAR) Tier B in Tunisia last year, then Coach Peter Magona got concerned about the “small” size of his players.
They were all subjected to supplements to build mass before the tourney could kick off.
“We were supplied and I followed the instructions very carefully, I used to take four scoops per serving in the morning and evening. I gained weight, and then lost it when I stopped. There was one for recovery and it helped me a lot as I would take it after the teary evening sessions and by morning I would be fresh,” John Wandicho, Cranes lock and Mongers` captain recalls.
Winnie Atieng, a rugby player who doubles as a supplements educator at Game Stores Lugogo, says some people use them to enhance their looks.
“Some people use supplements to gain weight and then tone their muscles to look good. Skinny people consume them with an aim of building muscles for public appeal,” she adds.
For weightlifter Charles Ssekyaya, who captained Team Uganda at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the dietary supplements are a close companion; an addiction, if you like.
Ssekyaya says there are endurance supplements such as Stamina, Glutamine, BCAA, which he only uses during training up to a week before a tournament, and the usual food supplements such as proteins which he consumes daily.
“Before you start using supplements, you may be performing at 50 per cent of your potential,” says Ssekyaya, who is also a gym instructor at Forever Fit Club at Namungoona.
“But the moment you start using them, supplements can push you up to over 95 per cent, and all-conquering. And the reverse is true,” adds the weightlifter.
Ssekyaya concludes that for top athletes who fear losing and falling out of favour, sticking to one’s winning nutritional formula— the supplements—is only logical.
What are supplements?
A food or dietary supplement is something which gives the consumer nutrients which may not be consumed in sufficient quantities. Ordinarily, supplements are meant to play an equaliser role when the consumer has a problem balancing their diet.
In countries such as the US, dietary supplements are defined as foods, while elsewhere they may be classified as drugs or other products.
There are more than 50,000 dietary supplements on the world market. More than half of the US adult population (53 per cent to 55 per cent) consume dietary supplements, the commonest ones being multivitamins.
Others include: anabolic steroids; prohormones; creatine; amino acids; protein; caffeine and antioxidants.
Doctor’s take on supplement use
Dr Ntege Ssengendo, a sports scientist, says supplements are mostly used by athletes in the West because of the state of the food they eat.
“Most of the food consumed in Europe and America is processed and thus devoid of some vital natural nutrients, which is why they need those supplements. Here, one can get all those nutrients from our fresh foods,” he explains.
However, Dr Ntege is all too aware of the poor feeding among local sportsmen and that they cannot get all the nutritional values they need from the posho and beans they usually eat during training camps as they prepare for tournaments.
“All athletes need Vitamin C or multivitamins to rebuild broken tissue; weightlifters need the fats, among others, hence the need for dietary supplements,” he says.
Ntege warns though that one should seek medical advice.
“The doctor should be in position to determine which supplement your body needs, in which amounts, for how long and the ingredients. Some manufacturers might not reveal all the ingredients, especially the harmful ones.”
Why supplements may fail
As is the case with any drug, you need a doctor’s advice before you start using any supplements. And not any doctor, advises body builder Ivan Byekwaso, but a nutritional specialist.
We have different bodies and individual bodies experience changes with time and environment. What might work for me might not work for you, “ says Byekwaso, adding, “the problem is that most of the athletes here just go to supermarkets pick any brand— because a friend uses them—and start consuming. That is wrong; what is appropriate for me is not obviously appropriate for you.”
Supplements are not cheap. Bodybuilder Ivan Byekwaso spends more than Sh1m to get genuine brands from USA and Germany.
However, weightlifter Charles Ssekyaya cannot enjoy his dosage alone. What friends send him from the US, he shares with colleagues here.
Prices of supplements range from;
Anabolic muscle builder 1kg-Shs68,000
Mass addiction 4.5kg-Shs162,000
Mass stack 4kg-Shs162,000
Mega grow value pack 4kg-Shs207,000
Hard core whey 4kg-Shs197, 000
Hyperbolic mass 3kg-Shs46,000
Fast grow anabolic 1kg-Shs74,000
Muscle fuel 4kg-Shs68, 000
Whey protein-Shs170, 000
Diet reed 4kg-Shs103, 000.
Risks involved in supplement use
The reasons why a supplement might fail to yield the intended benefits are not different from why they might land you in trouble. It all begins with lack of medical advice before using the supplements.
Dr Ntege Ssengendo, a seasoned sports scientist and team doctor of the Bombers, the national boxing national team at the 1974 World Amateur Boxing Championships, Cuba, recalls an incident in which James Odwori, who had impressively beaten all, was barred from playing the final because his blood contained ephedrine, an illegal substance.
Odwori had consumed Ephedrine unknowingly, as he took anti-flu drugs.
Like former World and Olympic champion Marion Jones would attest, abusing drugs and/or supplements can have far-reaching consequences.
In January 2008, the former sprinter and long jumper, after years of denying she took any steroids (a banned substance) intentionally, before tournaments, confessed to have lied to the US Federal Court. Ripped of all medals, Jones spent six months in jail. Her boyfriend Tim Montgomery was also banned for two years for doping.
Weightlifter Charles Ssekyaya says abuse of endurance supplements can cause muscle pulls, dehydration, blacking out, among other consequences.
Excessive consumption of caffeine, doctors warn, might cause severe headache; insomnia (failure to sleep); gastrointestinal problems and muscle tremors. It might also lead to bladder cancer.
Supplements called prohormones can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease; pancreatic cancer; prostate cancer and behavioural changes.
If you are a man and were considering using anabolic steroids, think twice. You could be at risk of decrease in testicular function; breast development; liver dysfunction and heart disease. Researchers say it can also influence behavioural changes which include irritability and random violence.
American cyclist Lance Armstrong confessed to have used Human Growth Hormone (HGH) as part of a sophisticated recovery system. Still wondering why the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) penalised the American and stripped him of all trophies but exempted Lionel Messi?
Messi’s use of HGH was possibly discontinued when he became an adult. Secondly, Messi did not use it as a performance enhancer. It was a prescribed treatment, monitored by physicians, to overcome a medical condition.
Even if symptoms, which permit the use of a banned substance as a solution to a serious medical condition such as Messi’s, persist for long, an athlete could apply for a therapeutic use exemption. But the bottom line is: whatever your condition or sports discipline, before you take any food supplements, please seek medical advice.