Let’s talk about Sha’Carri Richardson, WADA, and weed.
Last week, American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was excluded from the Tokyo Games based on a positive marijuana test, in violation of the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) rule against banned substances. Yesterday, we learned she was deprived of a chance to run in Tokyo by her own country, who had the chance to salvage the Olympics for her, but chose not to.
Full disclosure, I use weed sometimes (my kids tell me this is the “old people” name for marijuana, so if someone wants to tell me the hip, cool name, I’d be grateful). Believe it or not, I had never tried it before it was legalized in Illinois in 2019. I’m a Gen Xer raised smack dab in the middle of Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No,” campaign, socialized to be terrified of anything classified as a “drug,” which was reinforced by the passing of Maryland hoops star Len Bias in 1986. When I went to college, I stuck with alcohol, arguably one of the most dangerous drugs out there. After all, Nancy never told me not to drink.
But after decades of struggling with depression and anxiety, combined with the rise of Twitter, on which one merely survives in a day-to-day battle with toxicity, I gave edibles a try. Immediately, I understood exactly why people were so passionate about legalization. All that adrenaline and cortisol running through my body seemed to dissipate. My mind slowed down and stopped spinning. I was able to sleep. I felt … normal.
All this is to say that yes, WADA is decades behind the times when it comes to how it views marijuana, not to mention the racist tropes that demonized a perfectly helpful herb in the first place. If a white, suburban Gen Xer like me who drives a Kia gets a significant mental health benefit from weed, you can bet a whole lot of others are doing the same. After all, marijuana is now legal in 18 states.
Yet WADA seems stuck in the “Reefer Madness” era by including marijuana on its banned substances list despite zero evidence that it can enhance an athlete’s performance. If you’re interested in the justification WADA (and USADA, by extension) posits for the ban, you should read Tom Schad’s excellent work over at USA Today on the subject.
Much of the discussion on Twitter has centered around why WADA is so regressive when it comes to weed. But that argument is a loser, at least in 2021. Weed is on WADA’s banned list for reasons — Richardson knew it was banned, and ingested it anyway. That’s the argument the anti-weed side takes, and while it’s an unfair one that leaves out Richardson’s humanity and mental health, it’s the one they’re sticking with — largely because they see all athletes, but especially Black ones, as commodities who have to follow the rules or risk rightful banishment, rather than human beings who experience pain.
Instead, let’s talk about making exceptions for people. In 2019, after a report commissioned by WADA found a systemic attempt by Russia to tamper with laboratory data handed over to them (as a condition for ending Russia’s previous three-year ban for — you guessed it — doping), the agency imposed a four-year ban on Russia competing in the Olympics or the World Cup, although “clean” athletes were to be allowed to compete under a neutral banner. It’s funny how WADA keeps finding Russia guilty of doping but most of their athletes are allowed to compete. Who exactly is doping? Their diplomatic delegation?
Here’s what WADA’s CEO, Sir Craig Reedie, said at the time:
“For too long, Russian doping has detracted from clean sport. The blatant breach by the Russian authorities of RUSADA’s reinstatement conditions, approved by the ExCo (executive committee) in September 2018, demanded a robust response. That is exactly what has been delivered today. Russia was afforded every opportunity to get its house in order and rejoin the global anti-doping community for the good of its athletes and of the integrity of sport, but it chose instead to continue in its stance of deception and denial. As a result, the WADA ExCo has responded in the strongest possible terms, while protecting the rights of Russian athletes that can prove that they were not involved and did not benefit from these fraudulent acts.”
While many felt the ban wasn’t a strong enough penalty, given Russia’s egregious history of doping, jaws really hit the floor in 2020, when WADA decided to reduce Russia’s ban by half, meaning it now ends in 2022 instead of 2023. Surprise! And for a country not being allowed to compete under its own flag and anthem, Russian athletes sporting red, white, and blue uniforms and hearing Tchaikovsky while on the podium sure seems very Russia-adjacent. As British cyclist Callum Skinner told The Guardian, “Russia hasn’t been banned, they’ve been rebranded as Neutral Athletes from Russia.”
The reason I bring all this up is that it’s instructive in terms of who WADA is willing to make exceptions for, and who it isn’t. No, it’s not comparing apples and oranges, as, in theory, any Russian athlete who is caught using a banned substance will be prohibited from competing. But it’s clear that WADA can make exceptions, reverse its rulings, and find a way for athletes to compete if it really wants to do so.
The problem is that it’s harder for them to stand up to Valdimir Putin than it is a single Black woman whose own federation doesn’t have her back.
As my colleague Donovan Dooley wrote of Richardson:
In a world that makes sense, Richardson wouldn’t have to cope with family trauma as a 21-year-old, she wouldn’t have to hear about the death of her biological mother from a stranger, and the committees governing Olympic competition wouldn’t have an outdated policy on a drug that has been proven to have natural health benefits — but certainly running faster isn’t one of them.
So let’s be clear: There is zero real reason for Sha’Carri Richardson not to run in Tokyo, but plenty of manufactured ones. There is no reason for USA Track and Field to deny Richardson a chance to go to Tokyo as part of the 4 x 100 relay team, and shame on them for doing so. And there is no reason whatsoever that Russian athletes keep getting chance after chance, despite their delegation getting caught doping over and over again.
If WADA truly cared about ridding sports of doping, Russia would be out of the Tokyo games, and Richardson would be in. But Russian athletes have their state fighting for them, Sha’Carri Richardson doesn’t, and the Olympic Games continue to be less than they could be.