Sha’Carri Richardson and the Olympic Marijuana Ban
By Brady Pitcher
The Olympic Games are a time of celebration and unity in the world of sports. For athletes, it is the highest level of achievement in their career. Athletes train for years for their one moment of glory every four years. Sha’Carri Richardson, an American sprinter prepared tirelessly for her competition and rose through the ranks to become the U.S.’s fastest sprinter. During the Olympic trials her dreams were put on hold as she tested positive for Marijuana just days after. 30-day suspensions kept her from competing at the Olympic Games all together giving a devastating ending to her season. This left everyone asking; why did she test positive for a banned substance when she knew the rules? Did the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) make the right decision by suspending her from the games? In this article we will be looking at this controversial story and the impact it has had on sports.
Before qualifying for the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games, which were to be held from July 23rd through August 8th, American athletes must race at the U.S. Olympic trials. There are two ways to qualify for the Olympic Games in track and field, you can either place in the top three, or run below the qualifying time. On June 20th, Sha’carri ran a 10.86 100-meter dash winning the title and crowning her the fastest woman in America. The celebration lasted a short while when on July 2nd the World Anti-Doping Agency announced that she tested positive for marijuana, specifically THC. Sha’Carri agreed to a 30-day suspension on July 28th meaning that she would no longer be eligible for the Tokyo games.
After this announcement, many were left wondering why she would do such a thing knowing that marijuana was a banned substance. In a tell all interview on the “Today Show,” Sha’Carri explained what really happened. She explained that she was informed by a reporter after one of her races that her biological mother passed away and turned to marijuana as a coping mechanism. Richardson said, “I know what I did. I know what I’m supposed to do, I’m allowed not to do, and I still made that decision. Not making any excuse, or looking for any empathy in my case.” The bravery, toughness and honesty of her situation demonstrated immense professionalism from Richardson. Richardson then goes on explaining the rocky and unstable relationship she had with her biological mother. One cannot imagine the difficult emotions that Sha’carri was presented with after learning of her mother’s passing in such a shocking way. Although this does not excuse her actions, it does allow us to understand a little more what she was going through when she made the decision that would put a huge dent in her professional running career.
As Sha’Carri came to terms with her situation, others reacted online to the big news. The announcement divided fans on whether WADA’s decision to suspend Richardson was right or wrong. Others also questioned why marijuana was on the banned substance list in the first place. This left people wondering how marijuana affects your body while running. Not too much research has been done on this topic until recent years. The SPACE study (Study on Physical Activity and Cannabis Effects) ran a trial on how the body is affected when using medical marijuana. Their findings stated nothing more than feeling more relaxed and like the runner was on a “running high” a feeling runners get from the release of chemicals in the brain. Besides this, no other research has found that marijuana makes you faster or improves your physical ability in any way, shape, or form. This then left people asking why is it a banned substance if it is not a performance enhancing drug, why ban it at all? It is also legal to smoke marijuana in Oregon where the trials took place. With the spread of this news more people questioned WADA’s decision and asked WADA to change the rules or at least reconsider.
However, neither WADA nor USATF did anything to adapt these rules or allow Richardson to compete.
As the games commenced and time went on, the controversy took a backseat until the Winter Olympics in February the following year. Russian olympic skater Kamila Valieva tested positive for trimetazidine, a heart drug proven to boost an athletes blood efficiency and endurance. At the time, Valieva was only 15 years old and favored to win gold. Things went a bit differently this time as Valieva was still allowed to compete. Valieva placed first in her competition. The reaction on the other girls face were pure shock. Most of them crying and in pure shock at the choices WADA made regarding the Russian athlete. But what made the consequences between Richardson and Valieva so different? Richardson took to twitter saying, “Can we get a solid answer on the difference of her situation and mines? My mother died and I can't run and was also favored to place top 3. The only difference I see is I’m a black young lady.” Could it be that Sha’Carri was treated differently because of the color of her skin? Or were there other factors as to why Valieva was still able to compete? The mystery remains as to the real reasons why Valieva was able to compete at the games and Richardson was not, when the two drugs they took had two vastly different effects.
To create fair competition for all members, WADA needs to re-examine their banned substances and produce the same consequences for all its members to follow. Why should we let an athlete on a heart drug proven to help their abilities compete when the other athletes followed all the rules and worked just as hard. It is not fair to the athletes who are competing against the people who are breaking these rules. After the ice skating competition was done, nobody was in a good mood. All the girls were sad when it should really be the happiest moments of their career. When it comes to high level sports like this, we cannot let officials give people some slack and be harsh on others. This is the athletes lives and their careers, they dedicated their entire life to competing and they deserve a safe and trusting system for them to compete at their best.
After the fallout from the Olympic trials, Sha’Carri took some time off from racing and had some time for herself. After an upset like that, Sha’Carri needed some time to get her head back in the game and really decide what she wanted for herself. Recently, she has gotten back into racing springing against some of the top women in the world. She is starting to become the old Sha’carri again full of life and attitude. Running is one of the hardest sports on the planet and it takes a strong resilient person to keep up with it. All the things that Sha’carri has gone through proves how strong not only as an athlete but a person. Her comeback shows that you may make mistakes but its how you come back from them that really matters.
The World Anti-Doping Agency is supposed to regulate their banned substances and give athlete who use these the right consequences. But in the past year we have seen many instances where their job could have been done better. Whether you think marijuana should be a banned substance or not, it should be up to WADA to do the right thing and give out the right consequences so the competitor is fair to everyone. Sha’carri is just one example of an athlete getting punished for their actions. These cases continue to spark controversy all over the internet and leave people thinking about the decisions officials make. It will be interesting to see how rules change as marijuana becomes more legal. Will it be taken off the banned substances list, or will we see athletes being punished for a drug that is legal?