5 DAYS AFTER the conclusion of the Olympic Trials, the news landed with an explosion. Rumors that had started circulating the previous evening proved true: Sha’Carri Richardson, the winner of the OT 100 and the fastest American of the last decade, had tested positive for cannabis and would not compete in Tokyo.
“I am human,” the 21-year-old tweeted.
She later expounded on The Today Show that she took the substance while dealing with the emotions surrounding the death of her birth mother; a reporter had broken the news to her days before the Trials.
“I want to take responsibility for my actions,” she said. “I know what I did and what I’m not supposed to do. I know what I’m not allowed to do and I still made that decision. Not making an excuse or looking for any empathy in my case but being in that position of my life and finding out something like that — something that I would say has impacted my life positively and negatively in my life when it comes to dealing with the relationship with my mother — that definitely was a heavy topic on me.”
The USADA release explained that Richardson’s post-competition sample contained the metabolite for THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana, which is prohibited in competition. The standard suspension is 3 months, but it can be reduced to 1 month if the athlete completes a treatment program, as Richardson did.
The sprinter’s suspension began on June 28, and while it would expire before the beginning of the Tokyo Games, the additional disqualification of her Eugene performances meant there was no way USATF could place her on the team legally.
Where the Richardson case diverged from previous drug stories came in the immense outpouring of public support for her.
Sponsor Nike wasted no time in asserting it would stand by her. The activist organization MoveOn started an online petition to reinstate her (580,000 signatures at last glance). Social media, to put it mildly, blew up. Many in the general public were incredulous that the woman forecast to be one of the top draws of the NBC Olympics telecast could be banned for using a drug that is legal in many — but not most — states, including Oregon. Some charged the authorities with racism in prosecuting Richardson.
USATF expressed its sympathy: “Sha’Carri Richardson’s situation is incredibly unfortunate and devastating for everyone involved. Athlete health and well-being continue to be one of USATF’s most critical priorities and we will work with Sha’Carri to ensure she has ample resources to overcome any mental health challenges now and in the future.”
Even President Biden offered his opinion: “The rules are the rules and I was really proud of the way she responded.”
The White House went on to suggest that the WADA ban on cannabis be revisited. “We know the rules are where they are, maybe we should take another look at them,” said press secretary Jen Psaki.
Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Jamie Raskin of Maryland called on USADA to reverse the suspension: “Please strike a blow for civil liberties and civil rights by reversing this course you are on.”
USADA responded in a letter pointing out that the rules on doping are set internationally, and that as a signatory to WADA, the United States has to follow those rules or forego the Olympics and other international events.
Many fans held out hope that Richardson would be added to the relay pool by USATF. However, that would create legal problems for the federation as it had already laid out relay selection criteria. A July 06 release read, “While USATF fully agrees that the merit of the World Anti-Doping Agency rules related to THC should be reevaluated, it would be detrimental to the integrity of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field if USATF amended its policies following competition, only weeks before the Olympic Games.”
In the end, is it possible that the incident increased Richardson’s profile in the sport as well as her earning potential? The massive outpouring of sympathy created name recognition in the United States that few track athletes have had in recent decades.
One advertising executive told Yahoo Sports, “While she was one of the most popular Olympic hopefuls during the Trials, the pot ban has turned her into a household name and face, and her classy handling of the situation has only raised her public image.”
The numbers bear that out. From 124,000 Twitter followers in late June, she now has four times as many. Her Instagram following has more than doubled to 2.2 million. As near as we can tell, no other current U.S. track star has over a million.
Richardson is already planning her post-Olympic campaign. Few question that she will be able to command top-dollar appearance fees, numbers that haven’t been seen in the sport since the retirement of Usain Bolt.
When the international circuit revs back up post-Tokyo, the first stop will be the Prefontaine Classic on August 21, which has already spotlighted Richardson as a star attraction.
Says Richardson, “I look forward to running fast and putting on a show.”