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The Sha'Carri Richardson Olympics ban is today's infuriating outrage

July 02, 2021

Steph Chambers

Sha'Carri Richardson broke a rule. She tested positive for marijuana, and under USADA rules, that's not allowed. If you're someone who lives and dies by the letter of the law, and doesn't care about context or whether the rule makes any sense, you can sit smugly back and say she's getting what she deserves.

If, on the other hand, you are a caring human being, you may be interested in the details...and be warned that the details are enraging. Richardson is a 21-year-old sprinter who won the NCAA championship in the 100m as a freshman by setting a new college record, then burst onto the international scene with scorching times peaking at 10.72, which made her the sixth-fastest woman in world history. At the Olympic trials in June, she ran a wind-aided 10.64 in the semifinals, which was the eight-fastest time ever run and, without the breeze, would have made her the second-fastest woman ever after Florence Griffith-Joyner. In the finals, she booked her ticket to Tokyo:

It was the best story of the trials, and with her Flo-Jo style nails and bright hair and her unapologetically brash style, she instantly became an internet sensation. Personally, I flagged the 100m women's racing in Tokyo as the most exciting event of the Olympics, and all because of her.

There's another part of this story, too, and it's a part that made Richardson's achievements even more profound: A week before racing, she found out from a reporter that her biological mother had died. Details are still emerging about her family dynamic, but it appears from stories like this that Richardson was raised in Dallas by her grandmother:

During Richardson’s youth in South Dallas, her grandmother showed her an old plaque full of track and field medals that Richardson’s mother had won. “Dang,” Richardson remembers thinking. “I want one of those.” She won plenty of them, and the sport carried her to college.

When she received the news about her mom, it sent her into an "emotional panic," and she coped with marijuana. (It's also worth noting that she did so in Oregon, where it's legal.) Even burdened by that news, and, in her words, "blinded by sadness," she succeeded brilliantly at the trials. But then, of course, she tested positive, accepted a one-month suspension, and now all her results from the trials are thrown out and she can't compete in the 100m in Tokyo.

It's hard to write the rest of this story without succumbing to total anger at how she's been screwed over by a ridiculous, unnecessary rule. Marijuana, it's almost needless to say, is not a performance-enhancing drug. However you feel about it, it is now legal in many states, and we are approaching the day—a day that will come sooner than you think—when it's blanket legal for recreational use across America. The fact that it's banned by the USADA is already a throwback to the social mores of a time that has passed. Here's the explanation on their site:

For something to be added to the WADA Prohibited List, it must meet two of the three inclusion criteria: a) it poses a health risk to athletes b) it has the potential to enhance performance and c) it violates the spirit of sport....

  1. “Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.”
  2. “Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.”
  3. “Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world”.

For nos. 1 and 3, the hypocrisy is wild, and it is obvious. Do they ban alcohol? Do they ban cigarettes? Of course not! Which means they're grouping marijuana with harder drugs in a way that much of the country has already moved past, and which the rest will move past before long. As for no. 2, it is absolutely not performance enhancing in sprinting—there's a reason players are no longer suspended for it in the MLB, NHL, NFL, or NBA—and the great irony of the whole thing is that the most beneficial version of cannabis in other sports, CBD, is off the banned list as of 2019!

All of this sucks so much, and Sha'Carri Richardson is a victim of a pointless rule that should not be in place, and probably won't be in another four years. For the crime of using marijuana at a time of almost unbelievable emotional stress, one of the best athletes in American history is being denied a chance to compete on the world's biggest stage.

For her part, Richardson is saying all the right things, blaming herself, and etc. There will not be an appeal. But it's a shame that she feels she has to apologize, or that her agents are guiding her to show contrition. She deserves to feel righteous anger instead.

There are also sad parallels here to the NCAA; like that organization, the IOC and USOC makes money off the backs of their athletes, and then punishes them for petty crimes that don't even jibe with the moral code of American society.

Sha'Carri Richardson was screwed over, and then forced to apologize to the people trying to ruin her career. The only thing she should be—the only thing we should be—is purely, bitterly mad.