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Let Sha’Carri Richardson Compete At The Olympics

Everything about Sha’Carri Richardson’s Olympics Trials performance was perfection. In the June 19 finals, the 21-year-old ran 100 meters in 10.86 seconds into a headwind, briefly making her first Olympic team. From the second Richardson crossed the finish line, it was clear she was a lot more than a superstar athlete in the making — from her hair to her nails to her post-run interview where she announced the death of her biological mother the week before, Richardson gave us all of her. 

She immediately became a household name and the woman to watch in Tokyo. Unfortunately, just a short time later on July 2, Richardson’s (and America’s) 2020 Olympic dreams came to an end because of… marijuana. The runner tested positive for THC, a banned substance for Olympians.

For many, it was surprising that an athlete would even be banned for using marijuana, a drug that has been on a path to legalization in the United States for a while now. Beyond that, public perception of the drug is largely in favor of its decriminalization, with less than 10% of Americans believing weed should be illegal under all circumstances. People went on Twitter declaring that Richardson’s use of marijuana actually made her time more impressive, since it’s not exactly known to have a positive impact on speed.

People went on Twitter declaring that Richardson’s use of marijuana actually made her time more impressive, since it’s not exactly known to have a positive impact on speed.

There was also widespread disappointment at the loss of potential Richardson had for this competition. “When I first heard about it, I thought it was just the most heartbreaking thing to read because it was so beautiful to watch her run in the trials,” Sydni, 21, and a long jumper at Columbia University, tells Her Campus. “Obviously, she’s a phenomenal athlete and she just has unbridled energy that is really infectious and beautiful to see in a Black woman at the top of her game.”

As marijuana laws in the United States are changing, it is clear that drug policy for Olympic athletes should change too. Currently, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which is the agency responsible for Richardson’s suspension, lists marijuana as a “Substance of Abuse,” a drug that they say is “frequently abused in society outside of sport,” but that is not necessarily performance-enhancing. Drugs included on the list are cocaine, heroine, and MDMA. Drugs notably not on the list are alcohol and nicotine. 

As professional sports leagues are changing their approach to marijuana, it is hard to understand why the USADA hasn’t followed suit. Recreational marijuana use is legal in 19 states, including Oregon, which is where Richardson was when she smoked to cope with her biological mother’s death. But, it is still illegal on the federal level, and this is what complicates USADA and global policies.

“I think it is an archaic rule that was born out of a really insidious part of American and global history.”

Shortly after news broke about Richardson’s suspension, two federal legislators did get involved. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Jamie Raskin (D-MD) wrote a letter to the presidents of the USADA and World Anti-Doping Agency asking them to reconsider their rule and Richardson’s month-long ban. While President Biden applauded Richardson for her reaction to the suspension, he said that “the rules are the rules,” glossing over the fact that if someone has the power to change those rules, it’s him.

Rather than banning certain substances based on vague criteria such as being “against the spirit of sport,” they should be banned based only on the impact they have on an athlete’s performance. “Based on the knowledge I have as a student athlete, marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug,” Sydni explains. “Barring medical information on the effects that it might have on athletic performance, I think it is an archaic rule that was born out of a really insidious part of American and global history.”

This part of history is the “war on drugs,” and we can’t really talk about drug policy without considering its racist legacy. We know that the so-called war on drugs played an integral part in the continued oppression, criminalization, and incarceration of people of color, in particular Black people, and low-income people in the United States. In this context, the fact that Richardson is a queer Black woman and the latest person to suffer as a result of the rule reveals the way that this legacy persists.

“Sha’Carri admitted to using cannabis, a proven treatment for anxiety, PTSD, and insomnia, while coping with the death of her mother, a tragedy that can cause immense trauma and induce the aforementioned conditions.”

Erika, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan where she studied Sport Management and worked for its Center of Sport and Policy, also thinks the USADA policy needs to change. “Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension is just under the WADA protocols, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair,” Erika tells Her Campus. “These protocols are outdated and racist in nature, and they do not account for individual circumstances for use. Sha’Carri admitted to using cannabis, a proven treatment for anxiety, PTSD, and insomnia, while coping with the death of her mother, a tragedy that can cause immense trauma and induce the aforementioned conditions.”

Erika went on to explain that “by continuing to believe the harms of cannabis, we prevent ourselves from realizing the many benefits of the drug,” including its ability to support mental health. “It is counterproductive and prevents many athletes at all stages of competition from receiving the medical assistance they need or participating in a recreational activity they enjoy,” she says. 

To Sydni, Richardson’s suspension was more than a policy failure. “This whole spectacle has exemplified misogynoir and the way that we talk about Black people,” she says. “It exemplifies the lack of empathy specifically that we have for Black women.” 

This is not the only instance of racism against Black women that we’ve seen in the 2020 Olympics, and the games haven’t even begun.

Richardson’s swift suspension failed to take her circumstances into account. Even as people pointed out problems with the rules, Richardson is not even on the 4×100 relay Olympic Team as of July 7, and won’t compete in Tokyo at all after her suspension is over.

“I think that there are a lot of people who can accurately say ‘well, those are the rules,’” Sydni says. “And while that’s true, it just demonstrates this really deep lack of human empathy because we know for a fact that’s something she was doing to process the recent death of her mother.”

This is not the only instance of racism against Black women that we’ve seen in the 2020 Olympics, and the games haven’t even begun. Just this week, hurdler Brianna McNeal lost her suspension appeal after missing a drug test while recovering from an abortion. She’ll miss the next two Olympics. Additionally, two Namibian athletes, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, were disqualified from competing due to having naturally high levels of testosterone. Finally, FINA, the international body that makes rules for swimming, said that swim caps made for Black hair could not be worn in competition.

The United States has reached a turning point in terms of the way it sees marijuana and the way it thinks about racism. It is time for sports and the federal government to catch up.

All of these decisions coming from sports’ governing bodies are leaving athletes and fans feeling disillusioned and frustrated ahead of the Olympics. The United States has reached a turning point in terms of the way it sees marijuana and the way it thinks about racism. It is time for sports and the federal government to catch up.

“It’s a loss of talent,” Sydni says. “It’s a loss of competition and it’s a loss of the little bits of unbridled success and joy in Black women that we so rarely see.”

Studies referenced:

Van Green, Ted. (2021). Americans overwhelmingly say marijuana should be legal for recreational or medical use.

Olivia is a senior at Wesleyan University where she studies the social sciences and writing. In her free time, you can probably find Olivia reading a memoir, trying to learn how to play the guitar, or talking about Taylor Swift. She was a summer 2021 editorial intern and is a national writer.
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