Chad Oliva, a 17-year-old Florida schoolboy baseball player, is striding purposefully along the glossy floor of the Palm Beach Gardens Mall. He passes an attractive girl, a classmate at Palm Beach Gardens High.
"Hey, Chad," the girl says, her voice oozing affection.
"Whassup," Chad responds brusquely, making no eye contact, the bill of his baseball cap pointing the way to his destination, the General Nutrition Center near the entrance to Sears. In his dreams—though not the ones in which he is catching for the New York Mets—Chad has a gigantic cart and a free shopping spree at GNC.
Upon entering the chain store, Chad heads immediately to the back left corner, where shelf after shelf is crammed with competing canisters filled with creatine, the nutritional supplement of the day, the month, the year. Fie squats to the floor, where the monster tubs are. "This is the good stuff," he says, picking up a four-pound container of creatine powder that costs $56.99 and is distributed by a company called Experimental and Applied Sciences (EAS).
Chad, who stands 5'11" and weighs 190 pounds, will consume the powder over four months by dissolving one scoop, or 43 grams, twice a day into a glass of water or juice or Gatorade. The tub of creatine will provide him with the protein equivalent of 414 one-pound steaks.
Just being in GNC gives Chad—who has big-time power (seven homers in 56 at bats this season, through Sunday), a nice arm, a 3.9 academic average and an athletic scholarship to Jacksonville—a rush. "Everything they have here, the vitamins and all, they're good, natural products," he says. "You just have to know how to use them."
Chad, who also takes vitamins, other supplements and the herb echinacea, slides over to a rack filled with muscle and fitness magazines and thumbs through the April issue of Muscle Media, which is published by an EAS subsidiary. On the cover is a teaser about the Denver Broncos: how they muscled their way to the top! (According to a letter to the magazine from the Broncos' All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe, 75% of the Super Bowl champions use EAS products, mostly creatine.) The table of contents refers to a story on page 52: The Creatine Controversy: Is It a Safe, Legal Alternative to Steroids? (According to the story, the resounding answer is—what a shocker!—yes.) Chad stops flipping through the pages when he reaches a picture of a shirtless Brady Anderson, the Baltimore Orioles centerfielder, EAS spokesman and ardent creatine user. "Look at him," Chad says, admiringly. "He's cut, but he's not a monster. He looks like a ballplayer." Anderson is the very thing Chad wants to be when he grows up: a major leaguer, an All-Star.
When Anderson first tried creatine in 1991, he was probably the only guy in the majors using it. Although precise numbers aren't known, anecdotal evidence suggests at least one quarter of all major leaguers now use the substance. That number is at least as high in professional hockey and basketball, and perhaps 50% of NFL players take creatine. Among Olympic sprinters, cyclists and weightlifters, those who don't use creatine are harder to find than those who do. Bodybuilders live on the stuff. Boxers, too. Innumerable ordinary weekend athletes use it. It's everywhere. According to Grant Ferrier of the Nutrition Business Journal, in 1996 U.S. sales of creatine products (the stuff is sold as a drink and in bars and tablets, as well as in powder form) were $50 million. Last year sales rose to $100 million, and Ferrier expects sales to surpass $200 million in 1998.
Michael Barnes, the strength coach of the San Francisco 49ers, estimates that three quarters of the Niners use creatine. For the football team at Nebraska, the estimate is 80%. The Los Angeles Lakers have tubs of creatine powder sitting in their locker room.
Then there's the opposite camp. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' strength coach, Mark Asanovich, won't allow creatine in the Bucs' locker room. Trainers for the Chicago Cubs and the San Diego Padres discourage players from using it. Those opposed say the same thing: Not enough is known about creatine.