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Sha’Carri Richardson Can Outrun Everything Except a Broken System

Richardson was poised to become the breakout star of the Olympics. After testing positive for THC, she won’t get to compete. Her story is cause for outrage—and a reminder of the costs of a system that refuses to change.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

She gave the camera a wink and swayed in the wind, alerting the world that she was “that girl” from the jump. Despite absolutely chelonian efforts out of the blocks in both the semifinal and final of the women’s 100-meter dash U.S. Olympic trials, 21-year-old sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson won each race by more than a body length. The synthesis of her excellence (turbocharged gait, unrepentant demeanor) and aspect (mocha skin, faux lashes, rangy acrylics) pierced the heart of a segment of viewers aware of how the United States so often regards these features.

In the first race, she started celebrating her victory before she even crossed the finish line. In the second, she ran into the stands and collapsed into her grandmother’s arms as fans swooned. She told reporters that her girlfriend had selected her tangerine hair color, and that she’d been doubted at every step of her career. Yet an audience is privy to only so much. Did anyone really know the truths of Sha’Carri Richardson? What she cared for, what rested atop her shoulders?

This is the process through which athletes take on the shine of unstoppability. How they start to feel ordained, for reasons largely outside their control, but for reasons nonetheless. How their chronicles are rendered in terms of destiny, particularly in hindsight. The folklore will have you believe that Michael Jordan was meant to become the greatest from the moment he dropped 63 on the Celtics in 1986; that Serena Williams’s future was cosmically sealed from the second she captured the U.S. Open title in ’99. The siren of the unstoppable force can be hypnotizing.

Enter: an immovable object. In Richardson’s case, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), also known as the autonomous drug-enforcement arm of the International Olympic Committee. WADA doesn’t give a shit about what was meant to be. It cares about the oft-ballyhooed and unsurprisingly resilient bogeyman of drugs in sports. Performance-enhancing or recreational, WADA apparently sees but scant difference.

On July 1, news broke that Richardson would be suspended by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency—following WADA code directives—after she tested positive for THC on June 28. The next morning, she went on NBC’s Today and apologized for taking a substance as legal as air in Oregon, where the qualifiers took place. Her mother had just died, Richardson explained, and it’s hard to swallow that kind of pain. So she sought release elsewhere.

“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,” Richardson said. “Who are you, or who am I, to tell you how to cope when you’re dealing with a pain or you’re dealing with a struggle that you’ve never experienced before?”

“It was a few days before your big race and the trials,” host Savannah Guthrie said. “You found out that your biological mother had passed away. You found out when a reporter told you. And it was after that, that you ingested some kind of marijuana. … Is that what happened? Is that how this unfolded?”

“[In] the interview, to hear that information come from a complete stranger, it was definitely triggering,” said Richardson, confirming this portrait of events. “That sent me into a state of mind, into a state of emotional panic.”

The Dallas native, in the throes of grief and on national television, was forced to mourn anew. In the shadow of this spectacle, matters have only worsened. Until this week, there appeared to be at least an outside chance that Richardson would be able to compete in the 4x100-meter relay, which is scheduled to take place days after the conclusion of her suspension. But on Tuesday, when Team USA released its track-and-field roster for the Tokyo Summer Games, Richardson’s name was nowhere to be found.

The arbitrary and capricious wronging of the idol was met by the hot rage of the faithful; neighborhoods of the web burned; congressional representatives penned petitions. None of which has been a great advertisement for the Olympics. And yet WADA knew, at some level, that this could happen. Earlier this year, it reviewed its code and attempted to posture toward change while hardly changing anything at all. It kept THC as a “substance of abuse” and merely reduced the penalty for a positive test. When it comes to marijuana, WADA’s fiat is as follows: “If the athlete can demonstrate that the use … was out-of-competition and unrelated to sport performance the suspension will be three months and may be reduced to one month if the athlete completes an addiction treatment program.”

That it took Richardson’s suffering to spot the hypocrisy in this calculus is a terribly predictable tragedy; an outcome tied to the hip of power and how that power is dealt.

Such edicts have never lived in a vacuum. The policing of drug use, particularly recreational drug use, across the athletic landscape is a decades-old pattern enmeshed in all of the gruesome, nefarious, and crude intricacies of the drug war in the United States. These practices are rooted in the history of narcotics in America, how and when they are stigmatized, and how identity and influence are used as weapons to criminalize them. The way that these things intersect always seems to determine the pace of change—and the resulting human cost.

Bans on recreational drugs in sports have long had more to do with athletes as figures than the effects of the drugs themselves. There is perhaps no greater staple of the integrated athletic marketplace than white leadership structures fretting over the perceptions of the hyper-visible Black and Brown stars who fuel their bottom lines. This dread has taken on many forms through the years: an obsession with the sanctity of a static culture in MLB, a reluctance to integrate certain positions in the NFL, an aversion to increasing wages in nearly every major sport. Yet the alarm has been most prevalent in the panic over recreational drug use.

In the 1980s, white executives in the NBA publicly agonized over the viability of their league due to what they said was rampant cocaine use among players. “There is not a team in the league you can confidently say does not have a drug problem,” Jazz general manager Frank Layden told reporters at the time. “Every team could benefit from a rehabilitation program.” The myth of the organization as a haven from immorality was also perpetuated by the media. “For young players, many from unstable families in inner-city ghettos, it is tempting to spend some of their sudden wealth (NBA average salary is $180,000) on cocaine,” warned one particularly galling article in The Washington Post.

In 1981, the NBA and the players association agreed to institute a rehabilitation program. In 1983, the league installed mandatory random drug testing. From 1986 to 1991, eight players were suspended for at least a year for violating the banned-substances list. And this was just part of a wave of drug-testing programs that were put in place throughout the sports landscape. In January 1986, the NCAA authorized drug testing at college football bowl games; in July of that year, the NFL implemented its own anti-drug program.

By the 1990s, supercharged by the Clinton-era incarceration boom and the prevalence of the gateway drug myth, the NCAA, NFL, and NBA had all outlawed marijuana and were testing for it on at least a semi-regular basis. It wasn’t until then that the IOC added marijuana to its list of banned substances. Then–U.S. director of national drug policy Barry McCaffrey pushed for it as a stipulation for a $1 million government donation to the group. The IOC had been measuring cannabis usage for years, but according to its anti-drug head at the time, Belgian Prince Alexandre de Mérode, the organization viewed it as an “educative measure … not doping.” In a recent Washington Post report, Dick Pound, an IOC member and cofounder of WADA, recalled McCaffrey’s efforts to outlaw marijuana in international competition:

Pound remembered McCaffrey’s office as being “insistent” on keeping marijuana on the banned list. “Barry McCaffrey was very much committed to keeping marijuana there,” he said.

In a 1998 statement announcing the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s contribution to WADA, McCaffrey was transparent about his hopes. “We raise Olympic athletes up on international pedestals for all the world’s children to look up to as role models—it is vital that the message they send is drug-free,” he wrote in a memo to the IOC. “The goal of this whole effort must be to prevent Olympic medals and the Olympic movement from being tarnished by drugs.” This was nearly identical to former NBA commissioner David Stern’s explanation of what he sought from a marijuana screening policy in 2000. He said that he wanted to “clean up the image of the league.”

The fundamental appeal of policing marijuana, on both domestic and international sporting levels, is nestled in the branding—the control this prohibition provides an organization not just over a group of athletes but over wider perceptions about those athletes. It is a ploy that allows sports leagues to project an image of coded rectitude and to reap the benefits of that packaging. One of WADA’s justifications for placing any drug on its banned substances list is that it goes against “the spirit of sport.” The government paid WADA $1 million to preserve this myth over considering athletes’ humanity. What happened to Richardson is the logical conclusion of that mandate.

In recent years, the priggish revulsion to marijuana that once defined domestic drug policy has begun to dissipate. While marijuana was once regarded as a stepping stone to degeneracy, it is now in the middle of a social gentrification. Weed is legal in 18 states. Three of the past five presidents have admitted to consuming it in some form. THC is widely well regarded for its medicinal properties. The stigma is gone, but it remains banned in many sports all the same.

WADA’s marijuana prohibition still exists not merely because society once criminalized its use. It exists because the leadership structures of the broader sports world were able to benefit from parlaying that criminalization into their domains. That the returns on these policies have diminished is not always enough for the policies to change.

Which brings us to the human cost. A 21-year-old woman sought comfort from the pain of the most devastating news imaginable—and was crushed under the weight of an organization that refuses to evolve. It was, in every way possible, a thing that ought to have been stopped.