Sha’Carri Richardson at Olympic trials. Photo Credit: Patrick Smith, Getty Images.
The Olympic trials have come to a close and audience favorite, Sha’Carri Richardson was set to run the 100 meter dash and the relay race for the U.S. at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
The trials took place a week after Richardson found out her mother died.
“This year has been crazy for me. Going from just last week, losing my biological mother, and I’m still here,” Richardson said in an interview with ESPN after running the 100 meters, and qualifying for the Olympics.
Richardson is a queer Black woman with a fast running record. She shot into the spotlight during trials as she had her hair, makeup, and nails done. Her massive following includes other famous athletes, politicians, and even former First Lady Michelle Obama.
In a tweet posted by Obama, she said, “If you haven’t seen it yet, @itskerrii’s race at the Olympic Trials is something to behold—but her grace and grit in this interview might be even more special. We are all so proud of you, Sha’Carri! Can’t wait to see what you do in Tokyo!”
A Shocking Suspension
Shortly after the Olympic trials ended on June 28th, Richardson tested positive for cannabis. As a result of her positive drug test, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) officials suspended Richardson from competing in the 100 meter dash.
Consequently, Richardson will face a one month suspension. She must also complete a substance abuse program, according to the USADA.
Even though her shot at running a solo race in the Tokyo Olympics is over, others hoped that she’d still compete in the relay race. However, U.S. Track and Field officials did not select her for the relay. This ended her hopes of attending the 2021 Olympics.
“All these perfect people that know how to live life, I’m glad I’m not one of them!” Richardson said in a viral tweet posted to Twitter. However, she recognized that she broke the rules, and stated, “I am human.”
Richardson admitted to eating an edible that she consumed to cope with the loss of her biological mother. In her home state of Oregon, recreational cannabis is legal.
“It sent me into a state of emotional panic,” she said. “I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time,” The New York Times reported.
This was not the only suspension that the USADA had to hand out this year regarding high levels of THC in athletes.
In a press release from the agency, USADA officials stated: “we’ve had two other recent cases, Tate Jackson (swimming) and Kahmari Montgomery (track and field), involving THC positives that were resolved the exact same way – with a minimum one-month sanction and disqualification.”
Cannabis’s Effect on Performance
The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) released their annual pamphlet on banned substances effective as of January 2021. It includes cannabis.
“All natural and synthetic cannabinoids are prohibited, e.g. In cannabis (hashish, marijuana) and cannabis products, Natural and synthetic tetrahydrocannabinols (THCs), and Synthetic cannabinoids that mimic the effects of THC,” the agency writes.
The WADA sets the rules for international events such as the Olympics. They consider cannabis to be a performance enhancing drug. But how accurate is that?
Multiple peer-reviewed studies, published in accredited journals, disagree with the WADA on the cannabis’ ability to enhance an athlete’s performance.
One 2020 research review featured in the Journal of Sports Health, studied the results from 37 studies, “of which the majority were cross-sectional studies of elite and university athletes,” the authors write. “Among 11 studies reporting use among athletes […], approximately 23.4% of respondents reported using cannabis in the past 12 months. Two studies found a negative impact on performance, while another 2 studies found no impact.”
Another study, this one in 2018 in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, also investigated cannabis’ effects on performance. Overall, researchers found is no direct correlation with using cannabis as a performance enhancing drug.
Specifically, they write: “although the prevalence of cannabis use among elite athletes is not well-known, use is associated with certain high-risk sports. There is no evidence for cannabis use as a performance-enhancing drug.”
Needless to say, Richardson’s suspension has sent shockwaves through the athletic and Olympic communities, and beyond.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat Representative from New York, urged institutions like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to change its rules. “The criminalization and banning of cannabis is an instrument of racist and colonial policy,” she said in a tweet. “The IOC should reconsider its suspension of Ms. Richardson and any athletes penalized for cannabis use. This ruling along w/ IOC denial of swim caps for natural hair is deeply troubling.”
The IOC has faced public backlash from Richardson’s suspension and banning the use of swim caps made for people of color. These troubling bans amplify Ocasio-Cortez’s belief that they are instilling racist policies that disproportionately impact people of color.
A few people, including President Biden, also argued that “rules are rules.”
In a statement to reporters, he said, “rules are the rules. Everybody knows what the rules are going in. Whether they should remain that way, whether that should remain the rule, is a different issue. Rules are rules. And I was really proud of the way she responded,” according to USA Today.
Was it Justified?
For many, Richarson’s suspension is not an issue about whether or not she followed the rules; it’s about whether those rules are discriminatory, or rooted in the interest of public health. In turn, it has further opened up conversations surrounding cannabis prohibition, its use in athletics, and its effect on communities of color.
Currently, officials are nearly four times more likely to arrest Black Americans for cannabis possession than white Americans. This is despite similar usage rates, according to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
While more than 30 states have legalized cannabis in some form; many profit from the cannabis industry as officials continue to jail and professional penalize others for it. Furthermore, some of America’s own leaders — including former presidents — have openly admitted to using cannabis without such repercussions.
It is clear that rules against cannabis use disproportionately affect people of color as most prisoners serving a drug sentence related to cannabis are Black and Hispanic men, according to The Last Prisoner Project.
Despite this, Richardson offered a humbling response to her suspension. “I want to take responsibility for my actions. I know what I did,” she told the TODAY show. Additionally, she said, “I know what I’m supposed to do. I know what I’m not allowed to do, and I still made that decision.”
“Don’t judge me and I am human — I’m you, I just happen to run a little faster,” she added. “They don’t necessarily understand, and I wouldn’t even call them haters.”
Her face may not be on the Tokyo stage this summer. But her talent, and her ability to hold herself accountable given the circumstances makes her an icon for years to come.