The Truth About Jonah Lomu

Lomu burst onto the international rugby scene during the 1994 Hong Kong Sevens tournament. He represented New Zealand under-19 in 1993 & under-21 in 1994. At the age of 19 years and 45 days, Lomu became the youngest All Black test player as he debuted against France, breaking a record that had been held since 1905. In the hoopla surrounding his death one question is seemingly largely being overlooked by the mainstream press – how did he acquire the series of medical problems that led to his death & what, if anything, can be learnt to safe guard future stars?

1994 Hong Kong Sevens
Lomu bottom left. 1994 Hong Kong Sevens.

New Zealand #11’s

1987 Craig Green 1.78 m 79 kg (BMI of 24.9)

Craig Green
Craig Green

1991 John Timu 1.80 m 82 kg (BMI of 25.3)

John Timu
John Timu

1995 Jonah Lomu 1.96 m 119 kg (that’s a Body Mass Index of 30.9 which would theoretically classify him as ‘Obese’)

Jonah Lomu vs England at Newlands in 1995
Jonah Lomu vs England at Newlands in 1995.

1999 Jonah Lomu 1.96 m 119 kg

Lomu vs France in 1999.

2003 Joe Rokocoko 1.89 m 98 kg (BMI of 27.4)

Joe Rokocoko
Joe Rokocoko

2007 Joe Rokocoko 1.89 m 98 kg

2011 Richard Kahui 1.90 m 102 kg (BMI of 28.2)Richard Kahui

2015 Julian Savea 1.92 m 107 kg (BMI of 29.0)

Julian Savea
Julian Savea

Former NZRU marketing manager Jack Ralston biography states, “People might be stunned by this but I know at least two All Blacks in the 1990s who responded to demands that they bulk up by taking steroids.” He claimed “at least two confided in me they had bowed to the pressure to bulk up and were taking them… with the passing of time they may now feel as if they are in a position to speak about it publicly.”

Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disorder which causes causes large amounts of protein to leak into the urine & causes edema (swelling of body tissues) and an increased suspect-ability to infections. Nephrotic syndrome is mainly found in adults with a ratio of adults to children of 26 to 1. The disease is more common in men than in women by a ratio of 2 to 1. The prognosis for nephrotic syndrome under treatment is generally good although this depends on the underlying cause, the age of the patient and their response to treatment. The prognosis for adults under age 30 is better yet than for those over the age of 30.

Jonah Lomu was diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome in 1995. He was 20 years old at this time. He continued to play throughout his illness, though he occasionally took time off for treatment. He received a kidney transplant in 2004; however, this transplant failed in 2011. He was on the waiting list for a second kidney when he died suddenly, aged 40, on 18 November 2015. Jonah’s former Auckland Blues team-mate and All Black winger Joeli Vidiri also has Nephrotic Syndrome. Nephrotic syndrome has an incidence of three new cases per 100 000 each year in adults. Or 2 out of 2 New Zealand wingers from that era.

Jonah Lomu with Joeli Vidiri in 1998
Jonah Lomu with Joeli Vidiri in 1998

Anabolic androgenic steroids are taken by athletes to improve performance. One study of bodybuilders in Sweden found that 75% of competitive bodybuilders and 24% who engaged in bodybuilding solely to improve their sense of well-being used them. Lomu entered international rugby at a time when the New Zealand All Blacks placed all their players on a regimen of the ‘it’ supplement of the decade – creatine monohydrate.

We used to be given a really big container of it [creatine] every few months. Instructions were written on the back and we would take the container away with us.” Joeli Vidiri

creatine monohydrate
Creatine Monohydrate

Orv Hetil. 2003 Dec 7;144(49):2425-7 reported in Severe nephrotic syndrome in a young man taking anabolic steroid and creatine long term by Révai T, Sápi Z, Benedek S, Kovács A, Kaszás I, Virányi M & Winkler G. This revelation – that steroids plus creatine could spell severe danger for the kidneys – came 8 years after Lomu was diagnosed with the disorder.

In the paper the authors state “Anabolic steroids and creatine supplementation is one of the current abuse used by body builders. It is less known that this combination beside of many deleterious effects may also cause renal damage. Authors report a case of diffuse membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis type I in a 22-year-old man who had been taking continuously methandion in a large quantity and 200 grams of creatine daily, and was sent to the outpatient nephrologic unit with typical clinical signs of nephrosis syndrome. They also call attention to the role of the continuously consumed creatine in the renal failure.”

Rugby union has a doping problem, with one former international coach claiming, as recently as last year, that there has been ‘institutionalised drug-taking’ since the game turned professional in 1995/96. In December 2014, Ian Ritchie, the Rugby Football Union’s chief executive, said: “Whichever way you look at it I think there is recognition that there is a problem.” 

RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie
RFU chief executive Ian Ritchie

Although 15 of the 43 banned athletes or coaches listed by UK Anti-Doping are from rugby union, the vast majority of players come from the junior ranks. So we’re asked to believe that the 5’10, 85kg schoolboy rugby players are doping more than the 6’4, 130kg professional players whose entire financial well being depends on their ability to perform?

Other sufferers of Nephrotic Syndrome disorders include Pro bodybuilder Flex Wheeler who, like both Lomu & Vidiri, has undergone a kidney transplant. In a case study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology in 2010 (J Am Soc Nephrol. 2010 Jan; 21(1): 163–172.) Leal C. Herlitz, Glen S. Markowitz, Alton B. Farris, Joshua A. Schwimmer, Michael B. Stokes, Cheryl Kunis, Robert B. Colvin, and Vivette D. D’Agati report that of 10 steroid using bodybuilders 3 (30%) had full blow nephrotic syndrome whilst 2 others had nephrotic-range disorders. That is a 50% probability within that group of having some severity of this rare kidney disease. Bodybuilding is a way for other sports to see what the future holds sans legitimate drug testing & controls. That should not be a future anyone aspires toward.

According to these findings presented at the American Society of Nephrology 2009 Annual Meeting clinicians should add kidney disease to the long list of health problems associated with anabolic steroid abuse.American Society of Nephrology

“We think there is a direct toxic effect between steroid abuse and kidney damage,” said Vivette D. D’Agati, MD, professor of pathology and director of the Renal Pathology Laboratory at Columbia University Medical Center. D’Agati first noticed the connection in 1999, while studying the relation between kidney disease and obesity. One of the patients was a bodybuilder, whose body mass index (BMI) of 41 kg/m2 more than met the technical definition of obesity (≥30 kg/m2), but whose excess weight came from lean body mass rather than fat. The patient told the investigators he engaged in power lifting for several hours a day and used anabolic androgenic steroids (AAS).

Renal impairment was worse among the bodybuilders than among a control group of 65 obese patients, even though the obese patients had a higher mean BMI (41.7 kg/m2). Thirty percent of the bodybuilders were fully nephrotic, compared with 5.6% of the obese patients. Dr. D’Agati explained “this made us hypothesize that this was a direct toxic effect of steroids, and not just renal overwork from the excess weight.”

Most of the bodybuilders in the study had been using anabolic steroids for as long as 10 years, and many were also using other hormones, such as insulin and growth hormone.

The death of Jonah Lomu should serve as a wake up call to Anti-Doping authorities & doped athletes the world over. This is one man who we, as a society, let join the list of dead East German dopers who took the gap because no one was looking, not really. We will never know definitively whether it was doping, high dose creatine, the combination of the two or the least plausible of them all – a rare disease striking an athlete down in his physical prime.