On an uncharacteristically warm June Saturday in Eugene, Oregon, nine women lined up on starting blocks, brimming with anticipation of the starting gun for the final Women’s 100 Meter race at the United States Olympic Trials. The crowd, chattering at a dull roar for the valedictory race of the evening, hushed as the starter called for the women to take their marks. Nearly every eye in the crowd was intently focused on the mane of orange hair in lane five and the woman sporting the fluorescent locks. The gun fired, and the women were off. Just over 10 seconds later, after making up ground in the final 50 meters with astounding speed, the woman in lane five crossed the finish line in a dominant performance, more than a tenth of a second ahead of the runner-up. The audience and the commentators alike clamored for the victor, 21-year-old Sha’Carri Richardson. After a victory jog, Richardson hurried to embrace her grandmother on the sidelines, her face wracked with the emotions of a lifelong dream fulfilled.
In a matter of days, that elation would be replaced with sorrow, remorse, and raw grief.
Richardson, the sixth fastest woman in the history of the 100 meter dash, was banned from competing in the Tokyo Olympics following a positive marijuana test after her victory on that crucial Saturday. A tweet from Richardson following the announcement from the United States Track and Field Association (USATF) sent out a singular, solemn message: “I am human.”
While Richardson did not join Team USA in Tokyo (despite her 30-day ban ending prior to the preliminary heats of the women’s 4×100 Meter relay), the situation has become a watershed moment for the international sports community. Pressures have begun to mount on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) as people have grown more invested in the reevaluation and potential abolition of marijuana-related suspensions and testing. President Joe Biden made a statement that articulated the issue at hand for WADA and USADA: “[I am] really proud of the way [Richardson responded]….The rules are the rules. Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules.”
The organization that makes the rules, the World Anti-Doping Agency, has come under fire in the past, most notably following the discovery of the Russian state-sponsored doping program that led to an initial four-year ban of Russia from major international sporting events like the Olympics and the World Cup. While initially lauded for working with whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov to uncover years of state-sponsored doping and purposeful oversight within Russian sports, WADA quickly came under fire for helping to re-establish the formerly corrupt Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) just a few years after the explosive discovery of the cover-up.
The international community was alarmed by and angered at WADA for allowing the Russian organization to bounce back with relative speed after being guilty of one of the deepest conspiracies in the history of sports. This frustration was later aggravated by Russia’s appeal of their formalized ban in 2019 (after Russian athletes had to compete under the moniker “The Olympic Athletes from Russia” in the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics the year prior), which led to the ban being reduced to only two years. While the decision was in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the international community felt that WADA should have argued its case harder for CAS to uphold the ban and make an example out of Russia for its crimes.
On an individual athlete level, WADA has been the source of several controversial suspensions. In 2018, United States swimmer Madisyn Cox faced a two year ban for testing positive for trace levels of Trimetazidine, a drug often found in heart medicines. Cox was shocked by this outcome, and ended up proving to USADA that she was exposed to Trimetazidine by way of her daily multivitamin, which did not have the substance anywhere on its label. In her statement, she noted that “a world-renowned biochemist who reviewed [her] case compared the extraordinarily low level detected equal to ‘a pinch of salt in an Olympic size swimming pool.’”
Despite showing that her exposure was completely inadvertent, Cox was still held to a six-month suspension from competition and the reputational costs associated with doping. At the Olympic Trials this year, Cox missed making the team by .02 of a second.
Sha’Carri Richardson, on the other hand, earned her spot on the team, but had a level of marijuana detected in her system that indicated usage during or just before the Olympic Trials. Richardson elaborated on this, explaining to the media and track and field community that she had been using the drug to cope with her own grief following the shocking loss of her mother just a week before competition began. Tragically, she was informed of her birth mother’s passing by a reporter’s question in what was certainly a jarring turn just before she was slated to race. Ironically, marijuana is legalized for recreational use in Oregon, where the U.S. Track Trials were held. But marijuana is on the WADA list of banned substances because it meets two of three of the following criteria: It enhances, or could potentially enhance, an athlete’s performance; it could pose a health risk for athletes; or it “violates the spirit of sport” (the latter of which is subjective and somewhat archaic). WADA does not state which criteria each banned substance meets.
Because of how outspoken and successful Sha’Carri Richardson is in her sport, her situation has received far more media coverage and public outcry — but Cox’s controversial suspension and the greater criticisms of WADA point to a process ripe for change. The organization may soon consider a policy change consistent with the growing movement to legalize marijuana (a substance that is definitively not performance-enhancing beyond potential anxiety reduction) in the United States and across the rest of the world. But greater overhaul is likely necessary to provide fairness to athletes while maintaining clean, just competition globally.