American track sensation Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension for one month after she failed a drug test last month has caused a widespread uproar. Here’s why the decision, which cost her the ticket to the Olympics, is unjust, tragic, and dangerous.
Sprinting star Sha’Carri Richardson, the fastest woman in the United States, has been banned from representing the country in the Olympics. Why? Because she tested positive for marijuana – banned by the International Olympic Committee’s World Anti-Doping Agency for being a performance-enhancing substance, a health risk, and goes against the “spirit of the sport.”
21-year-old Richardson had won the women’s 100-meter race in 10.86 seconds at the U.S. track and field trials in Oregon in June. She was a favorite to win a medal in Tokyo. But now, she is banned for a month and is doubtful to compete in the 4×100 meter relay or the 100-meter race (which takes place after her suspension lifts on July 28) at the Olympics.
Her fault? She smoked marijuana after a reporter told her during an interview a week before the trials that her biological mother had died. The news sent her to a “state of emotional panic.” Richardson is not an addict; she merely smoked weed to cope with her mother’s death – in Oregon, where cannabis is legal for medical and recreational use.
Cannabis culture in sports
The decision not only rattled the sports fraternity, but also drew an outsized reaction across the world for obvious reasons.
An overwhelming majority of professional athletes smoke weed. Across the globe, many top athletes turn to cannabis to focus on the moment, relax, and aid recovery following sports injuries.
“All of my best games, I was medicated. It wasn’t every single game, but, in 15 years, it was a lot,” Matt Barnes, who won the NBA championship with the Golden State Warriors last year and spent 14 seasons in the NBA, told Bleacher Report.
“I smoked two blunts before every game,” former Dallas Cowboy Shaun Smith, who played nine seasons in the NFL, added.
Cannabis is a banned substance in the NBA and NFL
Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati tested positive for marijuana after winning gold at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan. He was subsequently banned and stripped of his medal. Later, when Rebagliati claimed the THC found in his blood was from passive smoke, he was given his awards back.
Usain Bolt, the fastest man alive and the world record holder in the 100-meter and 200-meter, smokes marijuana often. Likewise, Michael Phelps, the most adorned Olympians ever, was caught smoking marijuana in 2009. Though he was banned, Phelps participated in the Beijing Olympics and the World Championships a few months later.
During the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, swimmer Ryan Lochte lied about getting robbed and vandalized equipment before admitting he was intoxicated and drunk. He still got to compete.
What do the rules say?
According to the World Anti-Doping Agency, drugs that pose a risk to an athlete’s health, have performance-enhancing potential, and violate the “spirit” of the sport are banned. Incidentally, Richardson didn’t violate any of these tenets.
It’s important to note that Richardson used marijuana – the so-called “substance of abuse” in Oregon, where recreational marijuana usage is legal. Would she willingly harm herself by taking a little bit of cannabis – just weeks before the Olympics?
As for the “spirit” of the sport, Richardson didn’t consume marijuana to win any competition. It was completely unrelated to sports. Instead, it was taken to maintain her sanity in the face of grief. Further, there is no evidence that marijuana can “enhance” a sportsperson’s performance.
According to a 2011 study, marijuana has the following positive effects on athletes: increase how much oxygen reaches tissues, improve vision and concentration, help athletes forget previous traumatic experiences related to the activity such as falls or injuries, reduce muscle spasms, and aid in pain relief.
Ironically, very few studies are available on how marijuana can hinder athletes. Then why is the IOC still banning athletes who consume the plant?
Major sports organizations have reduced penalties or abandoned bans for marijuana entirely.
In 2020, the NFL loosened its marijuana rules – the penalty for a failed drug test was changed to a fine from a suspension. MLB removed marijuana from its list of banned substances in 2019. The UFC no longer penalizes athletes for marijuana use.
Banning an athlete for marijuana is illogical, unjust, and dangerous, opines Keenan Norris in Los Angeles Times. He says:
“It’s wrong to treat a marijuana user the same as an athlete using steroids or stimulants. Those who insist on the continued prohibition of marijuana in athletics or at the level of state and federal legislation need to reflect upon the real harms that such rules cause, as well as the deeper, perhaps unconscious motives behind their beliefs. Enforcement of unjust and dangerous policies is not indicative of virtue. U.S.A. Track & Field and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency should refuse to even test for marijuana and should lift the punishments levied against Richardson.”