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Sha’Carri Richardson and an Olympic Dream: Victims of Outdated Thinking?

On 1 July 2021 the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced that United States sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson (aged 21) had tested positive for the substance THC at the Olympic Track and Field trials in Oregon two weeks prior. Her 100m time of 10.86s positioned her as not only the fastest woman in America but one of the fastest in the world; and a gold-medal favourite for the Summer Olympic Games. Richardson’s absence has driven a renewed debate surrounding the use and acceptability of marijuana amongst professional athletes as well as highlighted the unfairness of such selective regulation as no universal rules exist across all sport governing bodies.

Following the announcement, Richardson spoke of her reasoning and decision-making process. She revealed how a reporter in an interview during the trials told her that her biological mother had passed away. Surprised and overwhelmed by this news she spoke of how “It sent me into a state of emotional panic”, and that she “didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time”. As of 2014 Oregon legalised recreational marijuana use for adults over the age of 21; a legislative agenda that has so far been adopted in eighteen states. Despite this, WADA still considers cannabis a prohibited substance for athletes. Since the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) works in collaboration with WADA, all American athletes must adhere to the World Anti-Doping Code at the discretion of WADA. Therefore, WADA has announced a 30-day suspension for Richardson, making her ineligible to race in Tokyo. Richardson could have potentially run in the 4x100m relay sprint as she would have completed her suspension; however, USA Track and Field coaches announced that they had already informed the runners previously selected to compete and would not be substituting any of the runners out of fairness for the athletes already notified.

This event has reopened long-standing debates surrounding the balance of regulating professional athletes while respecting their rights as private citizens. Marijuana, while increasingly accepted and legalised globally, remains on WADA’s list of prohibited substances. Organisations not associated with WADA have recently relaxed regulations surrounding marijuana use for their professional athletes. In 2020, the National Football League limited all marijuana testing to a two-week window during training camp and changed the punishment for a positive test result from a suspension to a fine. The NFL went even further and formed a Pain Management Committee for researching the benefits of marijuana use in pain management. In 2019 the National Basketball Association suspended random marijuana testing even though the substance remains on the banned list. The Olympics also relaxed their rules following the 2012 London Olympics by increasing the threshold milligrams of THC necessary to constitute a positive result and potential bans were reduced from 2 years to the current 30 day suspension policy. Despite this loosening of restrictions, many feel there is not enough evidence to warrant keeping marijuana as a banned substance.

According to the WADA, a prohibited substance must fall into two of the three following categories by:

  1. enhancing performance,

  2. posing a health risk or

  3. violating the spirit of the sport

The World Anti-Doping Agency argues that THC meets all three requirements. Arguably the most divisive argument, WADA claims that cannabis is a performance-enhancing substance and therefore could unfairly benefit users in competitions. Pulitzer-prize winner Matt Richtel argues that this notion “is not supported by science” and that “the evidence is inconclusive at best”. In fact, an overview of the research concludes that marijuana hinders performance by “reducing stamina and peak performance”. Upon further analysis it becomes clear that WADA's scientific basis for marijuana being a performance enhancing drug stems from research that has failed to uphold peer review from the scientific community.

The New York Times found WADA’s conclusions as to cannabis’s performance enhancing capabilities, largely due to “overstated anecdotal and speculative evidence”. A 2011 analysis conducted by WADA utilised scientist Jon Wagner’s results from his 1989 paper “Abuse of Drugs Used to Enhance Athletic Performance” to argue that marijuana could lead to increased performance capability. However, Wagner has blatantly discredited WADA’s representation of his work by stating “I didn’t write that”, arguing they manipulated his words to serve their purpose. That same 2011 report also argued that a connection had been discovered during a study on cyclists between marijuana use and improved “oxygenation to the tissue”, while conveniently ignoring the larger conclusion drawn from the research: that the evidence showed marijuana use worsened athletic performance. Other more recent independent studies have concluded that THC “does not act as a sport performance enhancing agent as raised by popular beliefs". In fact, one study actually suggests that “cannabis consumption prior to exercise should be avoided in order to maximise performance in sports”.

Despite this consensus WADA spokesman Jon Fitzgerald reiterated that the organisation “consults with all stakeholders in relation to substances or methods that perhaps should be added or removed”, and added that “throughout this time, the US has been consistent in its strongly held position that WADA should keep cannabis on the list”. It may seem peculiar that a nation's interests would play a role in doping laws. However, the US’ involvement on the issue of cannabis has long driven the narrative surrounding its use.

Cannabis is still considered, federally, a Schedule 1 Drug, with the likes of heroin or meth, making research of it heavily restricted and monitored. Following the 1998 Olympics, gold medal winner Ross Rebagliati tested positive for THC and after intensive lobbying by the US, WADA added marijuana to the banned substance list. Despite the US’ recent legalisations WADA and the US government have continued to maintain a strong relationship and agreement on marijuana acceptability. This began a clear alignment of US policy and international doping laws and, subsequently, the US Office of National Drug Control Policy openly advocated for the withdrawal of Rebagliati's Olympic medal as it “seemed to directly undercut our [The US Office of National Drug Control Policy] messages to young people that drug use undermines a child’s opportunities for success”. The US even pledged US$ 1 million (approximate GBP 719,000) toward “cleansing drugs from sports” following the incident. Expert in sport governance, Roger Pielke Jr., concluded that WADA used “policy-based science”, thus compromising the integrity of the World’s Anti-Doping Agency’s foundational reasonings.

WADA also claims that by smoking cannabis athletes pose a health risk and “potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making” that is associated with it. However, while marijuana use may be dangerous for some professional athletes, like boxers or racecar drivers, ultimately the "one-rule-for-all" approach does not work as the health risk posed depends on the lifestyle of the athlete. Finally, WADA argues that the violates the "spirit of the sport" as the

“use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world”

This argument is purely subjective and can change at any time in accordance with social trends. Arguably the treatment of other professional athletes that have tested positive for THC support the argument that many Americans believe marijuana does not affect one's ability to be a role model. Michael Phelps, one of the most famous Olympians of all time, was suspended for three months in 2009 after a picture of him smoking from a bong went viral. Despite this he is undoubtedly still considered one of the most influential role models for young swimmers around the world.

The evidence that marijuana should be considered as a performance enhancer, health risk or insult to the spirit of the sport is tenuous at best. This has pressured global organisations to re-think if the current policies are the most fair in terms of societal and human realities. While the USA Track and Field (USATF) has made it clear that Sha’Carri will not be racing at the Tokyo Olympics they have expressed sympathy “toward Sha'Carri Richardson's extenuating circumstances". They have also joined in agreement with popular opinion “that international rules regarding marijuana should be reevaluated”. President Biden has also expressed doubt surrounding the continuance of such regulations but supported the Olympics decision saying, “Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules”. Original founder of WADA and current International Olympic Committee member, Dick Pound, stated that “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”. He even admitted that he does not think that “there’s evidence it’s performance-enhancing, and/or it’s a drug that masks the use of other drugs”. More importantly, fellow professional athletes have been outspoken in their support of Richardson: professional basketball player Natasha Cloud tweeted out that her medical card helps her with “anxiety, recovery and sleep”. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, Patrick Holmes, also expressed his frustration at the situation saying “She put in the work. Even though she made a mistake, like we all make mistakes... to not let her be at the Olympics at all is pretty ridiculous to me”.

In the face of overwhelming public support it is hard to imagine that unfair doping regulations will continue as legalisation becomes normalised. However, this does not address the larger American problems Richardson’s plight represents. This event has re-opened debates on the fairness of not only athletic doping regulations but also domestic laws: specifically, the injustices faced by minority communities surrounding drug usage. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed that the Olympic Committee’s actions continue the systemic racism officials had hoped to implement at the beginning of the War on Drugs. Ultimately, this outcry did not alter the fact that Richardson did not go to Tokyo and she tweeted, “Don’t judge me because I am human, I’m you. I just happen to run a little faster”. She has said she is already looking to future competitions stating:

"This is just one game. I’m 21. I’m very young, I have plenty of games left in me to compete in, and I have plenty of talent that backs me up... After my sanction is up, I’ll be back and ready to compete”.


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