Opinion: The Sha’Carri Richardson Suspension Is Ridiculous

By: Sam Ivanecky

With the Olympic Trials wrapping up on Sunday, this week was supposed to be a lull in American track & field news. Instead, we once again find ourselves in the midst of another front-page story. As of June 28th, American sprint sensation Sha’Carri Richardson began a one-month suspension after testing positive for THC from marijuana. The test occurred on June 19th, shortly after Richardson dominated the Trials in the 100 meter event, cementing herself as a gold medal favorite for Tokyo.

Here’s what we know thus far.

Richardson was suspended for a month, making her ineligible to compete in the 100 meters in Tokyo. Her suspension will end prior to the 4x100 rounds, making her potentially eligible to compete in the event if USATF grants her eligibility. The test was performed by USADA and the normal 3-month suspension was reduced to 1-month after Richardson completed a counseling program for marijuana. Richardson was upfront with the test result, fully admitting to using marijuana and saying it was related to grief and emotions surrounding the recent death of her biological mother, news she broke in an interview after her 100m final at the Trials. With all that in mind…

...the suspension is absolutely ridiculous and highlights just another thing wrong with USATF and USADA.

Marijuana should not be a banned substance in sports, including track & field. Based on USADA’s website, a substance must meet two of three criteria to be banned in-competition. These criteria are “a) it poses a health risk to athletes b) it has the potential to enhance performance and c) it violates the spirit of sport”, per USADA’s website. They also include a link to this paper which dives into all the details around the decision to ban marijuana. While I could write a novel on all of the flaws in that paper, there are a few that need to be explicitly called out.

First, the paper references a study to support potential performance enhancement. The study they reference shows a decrease in cyclists performance at maximal effort, but because there was at least some increase in vasodilation and bronchodilation, there is supposedly evidence for potential performance improvement. Color me confused, but a decrease in performance is the opposite of performance-enhancing, no? 

The paper also mentions that marijuana’s ability to help an individual relax can be seen as performance-enhancing. This is at least proven, but makes you wonder why plenty of other things such as candles, hot tubs, and smooth jazz haven’t been banned for their relaxing abilities. 

Notably, alcohol was removed from the banned substance list in 2018, despite the fact alcohol has very clear negative health impacts and also meets the criteria for relaxation. 

But wait, there’s more!

The third criteria for a substance to be banned is it “violates the spirit of the sport”, which USADA notes is “...does not rely on established scientific facts; rather, it relies more on ethical and societal considerations encompassing a wider view of sport beyond physical achievements and health.” Essentially, this makes it a “catch-all” rule in the cases where USADA wants to ban a substance but cannot find concrete evidence to meet the first two criteria. The paper focuses on the fact marijuana is illegal in some places (despite increasing legality in the United States) and that athletes using marijuana provides a bad role model for the youth. 

The first point seems to be continually becoming less true, as marijuana is increasingly becoming legal in more places worldwide. The latter point seems somewhat arbitrary, especially when I’ve seen plenty of Instagram photos of professional runners blacked out from drinking and partying. These people may be role models but they are also humans with lives outside of a rubber oval.

All of this leads me to say, marijuana should be legal. There are already plenty of arguments about this topic but banning athletes for marijuana is ridiculous. Even the NBA stopped marijuana testing due to COVID and focused testing on actual performance-enhancing drugs, noting that marijuana did not improve performance. Even the NCAA, potentially the only sports governing body with more issues than USATF, agrees that marijuana does NOT enhance performance.

Some people will argue that rules are rules, but as we saw above with alcohol, rules change.

Beyond the legality argument, there’s a lot more going on here. Plenty of people have come out saying that Sha’Carri was stupid for her choices with marijuana and that she deserves the suspension. And that ignores some major considerations.

The news that Sha’Carri’s mother had died was a shock to many of us watching the broadcast, but imagine how she was feeling? I’m fortunate enough to say both of my parents are still alive but I cannot even fathom losing a parent, let alone losing one leading into the biggest moment of my life. To claim Richardson was stupid for trying to alleviate stress is short-sighted, inconsiderate, and painfully ignorant. 

That’s not saying her situation is a free pass for anything but considering we’ve already established marijuana is not improving sprint performance, Richardson was clearly doing this for mental health and not to boost her Olympic dreams. 

And at the end of the day, everyone loses here. Fans of track & field, beit Americans or otherwise, will no longer get to see (one of) the best sprinters in the world compete in Tokyo. The race(s) between Richardson and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce looked to be arguably the best on the schedule and now they’re gone. 

It’s fair to say no one created more hype or excitement than Sha’Carri at the Olympic Trials. She brought an excitement to sport that extended well beyond typical fans, getting recognition from the likes of even Michelle Obama. She also starred as an inspiration and role model to many in the LGBTQ+ community, something that is more important now than ever before. 

It also continues to undermine any faith fans had in USATF and USADA. USATF is suspending one of their marquee athletes for something that shouldn’t even be an infraction, yet they continue to put former dopers like Justin Gatlin on a pedestal. The governing body released this statement, stating their support for Richardson in her mental health journey and vowing to provide resources. After digging through their website, I found no actual links or notes on how to get mental health resources. Maybe this is only available via a membership or a representative, but it’s unclear if and what they’re actually doing in the process.

The reality of the situation is Sha’Carri has been banned for a ridiculous reason and further hurts our sport. In the continued fight to push running into the limelight, we once again see our sport hide behind the curtains due to inconsistent rules that don’t reflect the world today. While the Olympic should provide plenty of great competition, I’m less excited for Tokyo now than I was a week ago.