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July 9, 2021 | From the blogSports

Olympic Ban: Failed Drug Test or Failed Policy?

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Following a dominant win in the women’s 100 meters at the U.S.  Olympic Trials, Sha’Carri Richardson looked primed for a run at Olympic Gold in Tokyo.   However, Richardson’s Olympic dreams quickly came crashing down after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) announced she tested positive for THC, the active ingredient found in marijuana.  Since 2001, USADA has been recognized by Congress as “the official anti-doping agency for the Olympics, Paralympics, Pan American and Parapan Games to help combat the use of performance-enhancing drugs and create a fair and level playing field” for U.S. athletes, which entails enforcing the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) prohibited substance list.

While legal under Oregon law, where the trials were held, marijuana is still listed as a “substance of abuse” under WADA rules, and prohibited for in-competition use.  As a result, the sprinter accepted a one-month suspension and her performance was disqualified, rendering her ineligible to compete in the 100 meters in Tokyo.   Richardson, just 21, showed her maturity in an interview with the Today Show, where she took responsibility for her actions, and apologized for a lapse in judgement.  She further revealed that she used the drug to cope after she received news of the unexpected death of her biological mother.  Any athlete may appeal a failed test to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but Richardson is unlikely to take this route given her admission of using the banned substance, and two sources familiar with the case told the Associated Press that Richardson will not be appealing.

Initially, there was hope that Richardson would be selected by USA Track & Field (USATF) to run the 4×100 relay at the games, but the organization did not include the America’s fastest female sprinter in their final roster.  As the story exploded, some of the largest figures in sports and politics weighed in.  While some took the perspective of President Joe Biden, stating that “rules are rules”, many others felt that the rule is void of logic and must be amended and Richardson should be allowed to run.  Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sent a letter to WADA, asking the organization to end Richardson’s suspension because the decision “lacks any scientific basis.” USATF even released a statement agreeing that WADA should reevaluate their rules on THC. 

The much-criticized WADA rules list three reasons for prohibiting THC, with some seeming to contradict each other.  The rules, state that athletes using THC have slower reaction time and increased risk taking, which will “potentially endanger themselves and others” but that THC also “can be performance enhancing.” If that wasn’t convincing, the rules attempt to justify the ban arguing the use of THC “is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people.” 

WADA, unlike other athletic governing bodies, has been unwilling to adapt to the shift in public opinion on marijuana use, as the NFL, MLB and NHL have all drastically loosened their policies on marijuana in the last few years.  In each of those cases, the prohibited substances list are negotiated between the athletes and the leagues.   In the case of WADA and Olympic sports, the prohibited substances lists are created solely by the governing body.   Unfortunately for Richardson, there does not seem to be any real recourse that would result in her competing in Tokyo.  However, the attention her story has received has put a bright spotlight on WADA’s rules, creating potential for change in the near future.  Luckily, the 21-year-old phenom has a long career ahead of her, and hopefully when the 2024 Olympics come around, athletes will not have to bear the risk of their dreams being derailed due to a policy that many feel is antiquated and illogical. 

Special thanks to Benjamin Malone

Photo by Ryunosuke Kikuno on Unsplash

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