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Editorial: Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension was fair, but the marijuana rule isn’t

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates after winning her heat of the women's 100 meters run at the U.S. Olympic trials last month
Sha’Carri Richardson celebrates after winning the fourth heat of the women’s 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on June 18 in Eugene, Ore.
(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

Sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson delights fans with her vivid style, even bolder smile, strength of character and deep and open love of her grandmother. Not to mention that she runs, as she puts it, “a little faster” than the rest of us. “Splendid” is the word that comes to mind.

So it was heartbreaking to see this young woman, so full of promise and personality, kept from competing in the Tokyo Games over the use of some marijuana, especially considering that she tested positive just a few days after learning — from a reporter — that her mother had died.

And this took place in Oregon, where marijuana use is legal under state law (if not under federal statutes).

That’s not to say the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which takes its rules from the World Anti-Doping Agency, was wrong to suspend Richardson for one month, the minimum discipline for such an infraction. The prohibition was clear. It’s just that the timing in this case was particularly heart-rending; if the drug had been found in Richardson’s blood a couple of months ago, she most likely would have made it to Tokyo. But Richardson isn’t playing the pity card.

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“I want to take responsibility for my actions,” she told the “Today” show. “I know what I did and what I’m not supposed to do. I know what I’m not allowed to do, and I still made that decision.”

In saying so, she became an even more endearing figure. Imagine a celebrity accepting the consequences for making a mistake, instead of whining and seeking an out. That’s a role model we don’t see too often.

But let’s not lose sight of the larger picture. The mistake Richardson made shouldn’t be considered a mistake at all. WADA should take marijuana off its list of banned substances and review the rest of its prohibitions. A 2018 paper co-written by WADA’s medical director found no evidence that marijuana is a performance enhancer.

WADA has in the past rationalized its rule by saying that athletes who are competing under the influence “potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.” Let’s get real. They think all that and more isn’t possible for a drunk athlete? Yet in 2018, alcohol was taken off the list of prohibited substances, and one of the founders of WADA has said the marijuana ban had more to do with government attitudes toward the drug than anything else.

WADA isn’t the only arena in which marijuana rules are anachronistic; the U.S. government’s attitude is practically medieval. Marijuana is legal in most states of this country, if you count medicinal use, but the federal government continues to place cannabis in its most restricted category of drugs, up there with heroin.

Marijuana use also is legal in 40 countries. But WADA’s only concern should be athletes’ safety and the performance-enhancing properties of various substances, not what any government thinks. The NFL, MLB and NHL already have stopped suspending athletes for marijuana use. It’s also worth considering that marijuana is detectable in drug tests for up to weeks after it was most recently used, long after its effects have subsided.

Somehow, it doesn’t seem completely coincidental that Richardson’s sad tale occurred at about the same time that the International Swimming Federation (FINA) ruled against allowing swim caps designed for natural Black hair to be used in competition. The reason for the decision, now being reconsidered after public backlash, was that the cap, which allows room for more voluminous hair, did not follow the “natural shape of the head.” Which is important for ... what, exactly?

The problem is, FINA didn’t provide a reason based on studies or issues of competitive advantage. If there is a legitimate reason for its decision, it should reveal that — and then look for a way to level the pool for all swimmers. If not, it should reverse itself and apologize for sticking to a hidebound tradition that puts Black athletes at a disadvantage.

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These seemingly disparate issues — marijuana use and swim caps — nonetheless speak to the same flaw in the world of Olympic sports: the apparent unwillingness of powerful governing agencies to show that their rules are based on fairness and science. It’s time they recognized that it’s no longer enough to just issue edicts from Mt. Olympus.


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