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Javelin thrower’s case for steroids misses the mark

Kate Schmidt, twice an Olympic javelin bronze medalist and a former world-record holder, made an earnest case in The Times’ Opinion section Sunday for allowing athletes to use performance-enhancing drugs that are now banned.

She began by saying it is unfair to demonize Marion Jones, who last week admitted to having used steroids, for having done something everyone does. Athletes are pressured into doping to meet the expectations of fans, Schmidt said, to the extent that “success seems to require steroid use for any sport requiring speed, power or a combination of the two.”

It’s impossible to stop the use of steroids, she contended, so why not decriminalize performance-enhancing drugs and educate athletes, parents and coaches on the safe use of those substances?

Here’s why.

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Because steroids are dangerous if not properly prescribed, used and monitored, and they can have devastating effects on young, growing bodies.

Because allowing the use of what Schmidt would call training supplements would be grossly unfair to athletes who choose to avoid the risks of steroid use and take pride in competing without chemical aid.

Schmidt suggested declaring certain levels of substances within the body to be acceptable and punishing athletes who exceed those levels. But cheating wouldn’t end -- it would probably escalate as athletes sought drugs to mask the amount of other drugs they were taking and stay within these limits.

Nor would setting acceptable levels address the stigma currently attached to drug cheats such as Jones. The definition of cheating would change, but the offense would remain. Nothing gained there.

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If a small amount of the steroid known as “the clear” helps a little, the logical leap for an athlete is to think that a little more -- or a lot more -- will add inches to a throw or shave a hundredth of a second off a runner’s time. If a doctor won’t prescribe higher doses, that athlete might look elsewhere for substances with greater potency but unknown provenance and assume health risks that might not be immediately apparent.

As for the theory that everyone is using them, to borrow a line everyone’s mom has uttered at least once, if all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you follow them?

Finally, decriminalizing substances that are now banned is a terrible idea because it would minimize the importance of talent, discipline and competitive strategy and would maximize the value of having access to a good chemist.

It wouldn’t even the playing field -- which has never truly been even because of cultural, economic and genetic differences. It would perpetuate all of those discrepancies and could enlarge them.

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These substances don’t come cheap, giving a great advantage to athletes who have financial resources. Athletes who can’t pay could easily become beholden to drug companies, unscrupulous doctors or black-market sellers, with all the menacing possibilities that would entail.

The fight against performance-enhancing drugs seems a futile battle. Chemists too often remain ahead of the ability of testers to detect new substances. Testing is expensive.

Those are not reasons to stop. For track and field, it’s a reason to increase education and vigilance against such substances.

Schmidt said that when she competed, in the 1970s, some athletes used performance-enhancing drugs but most didn’t. Those were some of track and field’s best days, an era when indoor and outdoor meets routinely drew huge crowds from coast to coast.

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That has changed in the steroid age.

The venerable Millrose Games nearly went under a few years ago. The L.A. Invitational indoor meet vanished after featuring 105 Olympic gold medalists over 43 years. Attendance has dropped at many meets besides the Olympic trials and the Penn and Drake relays. Maybe that means people don’t want track to become a contest of my steroid is better than yours.

Schmidt said that taking synthetic testosterone and its derivatives out of baseball and football would result in “far fewer home runs, smaller, slower, less muscular athletes and no new records for the next few decades until human development and equipment technology compensated for the absence of these drugs.”

The problem with that is what, exactly?

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Major league baseball has had banner years at the box office and on the field since Mark McGwire retired. The game is more than a test-tube-generated home run derby.

Maybe the answer for track and field is to create two parallel leagues and let the public decide which it will support.

One league would permit use of performance-enhancing substances and the other would ban it. Of course, they’d have separate record books.

In the former, each entry would include the name of the chemical that athlete used to achieve that mark.

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Ten years later the notation would be expanded to include whether that athlete is alive and healthy.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Elliott, go to latimes.com/elliott.


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