To Run OR Not To Run?

On June 19, twenty-one-year-old Sha'Carri Richardson, one of the fastest U.S. women ever, won the women’s 100-meter final at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials in Oregon, with a time of 10.86 seconds. This qualified her to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, which start in July. Richardson was ecstatic, and immediately ran up into the stands to embrace her grandmother. “I am an Olympian. A dream since I've been young. I'm pretty sure everybody's dream as a track athlete,” she said in an interview with NBC Sports after the race, “Being happy is an understatement. Being excited, nervous, all of those feelings. I'm highly blessed and grateful.” 

A Heartbreaking Revelation

Less than two weeks later came the heartbreaking revelation that Richardson would not be living her Olympic dream after all. She had been suspended from competition for one month after testing positive for THC, a substance that is banned in competition for Olympic athletes.

Richardson spoke to Today right after the suspension, explaining that qualifying for the Olympics was not the only emotional event she had experienced that week. She also found out that her biological mother had died a week before her race, and said that this news was “triggering” and put her into “a state of emotional panic.” One of the things she did to help her cope with the loss was to use marijuana, legal in Oregon, where she was at the time. “I apologize for the fact that I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions,” she said, “People don’t understand what it’s like to have to . . . go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain.” She expressed regret for her actions, saying, “I greatly apologize if I let you guys down, and I did.”

Marijuana and the World Anti-Doping Agency

While marijuana is legal in many U.S. states, and in many countries around the world, Olympic athletes are not allowed to use it, or other cannabinoids (with the recent exception of CBD) when they are competing. In fact, there are many substances that Olympic athletes are not allowed use. Some are prohibited in competition only, some in specific sports, and others are prohibited at all times. These lists are maintained, and periodically reviewed, by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which was created in 1999 to ensure that athletic competition remains doping free. 

WADA’s rules regarding THC have actually become less restrictive in recent years. In 2013, it increased the threshold for a positive THC test, meaning that it is more difficult for an athlete to test positive. In 2021, the agency introduced a new, less-restrictive, category of substances called “substances of abuse,” and moved THC into this category. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is the national anti-doping agency for the United States. It explains that substances of abuse are substances that are “frequently abused in society outside of sport.” These substances are prohibited in competition, and athletes are only tested for them in competition. The category includes cocaine and heroin. These substances of abuse are generally not thought to actually enhance performance, and the USADA explains that this is the main reason for the creation of this new category; so that athletes are not sanctioned in the same way that they are for using performance-enhancing substances. If an athlete tests positive for a substance of abuse but can prove that it was used outside of competition, and that it was not related to his or her performance, he or she will receive a three-month sanction. That is reduced to one month—which is what Richardson received—if a USADA-sanctioned treatment program is completed.

A Controversial Ban

However, while a month may not seem like long, it is enough to prevent Richardson from realizing her dream of competing in the Olympics. Her ban highlights the widespread disagreement that exists regarding the use of marijuana by Olympic athletes. Some people believe that Richardson’s ban is unfair, while others insist that she—and all other Olympic athletes—know the rules from the beginning, and have no excuse for breaking them. More controversial is the existence of the rules themselves. While some people support a continued ban on marijuana for Olympic athletes, an increasing number are arguing that if THC doesn’t affect performance, there should be no sanctions at all for athletes who use it. Dick Pound, one of the founders of WADA, says, “One of these days, we should probably either take it off the list entirely or say it’s there but the minimum sanction should be something like a warning, so you’re not losing any period of eligibility.” He says, “Frankly, I don’t think there’s evidence its performance-enhancing, and/or it’s a drug that masks the use of other drugs.” A number of other sports organizations have stopped punishing athletes caught using marijuana. In an article on the California NORML website, the author comments, “The NFL is no longer suspending players who test positive for marijuana, and is funding research into its use for pain management. The NBA has ceased random testing for marijuana, and cannabinoids were taken off the MLB’s drugs of abuse list in 2019.”

Even the U.S. president indicated that he disagreed with current marijuana laws for Olympic athletes. When he was asked whether he thinks Richardson’s sanction is fair, he said, “The rules are the rules, and everybody knows what the rules were going in.” However, he added, “Whether they should remain that . . . is a different issue.”

Richardson herself is looking towards the future. She didn’t get where she is by giving up, and she remains positive about what comes next. On July 3, she tweeted, “I’m sorry, I can’t be y’all Olympic Champ this year but I promise I’ll be your World Champ next year.”

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