Updated: Jul 12
One cannot take a black and white, right or wrong approach to analyzing the events surrounding Sha’Carri Richardson. This is due to the way marijuana possession, sale, and consumption has been weaponized against People of Color. While countless members of this group remain incarcerated due to charges related to marijuana, are disqualified from sports, and some who are even serving life sentences, this herb has been at the center of a plethora of start ups - mostly run by White men. In addition, thousands who do not identify as Black or a person of color have yet to face true consequences for using this substance in organizations where it is prohibited.
Equitable Rules and POC
For as long as we can account for, rules have been used to govern what is right vs. what is wrong, and to police POC. Some rules are made into laws, bills, and policies for the protection and progression of some people. On the contrary, there have been rules established in our society throughout history that have had the opposite effect on marginalized groups. Rules used to govern our society are often enforced differently according to race, class, gender, etc. Rules are intended to ensure structure and order. But let’s think about science for a second - have you ever noted that in the sciences, as new discoveries are made through research, principals and ideas are adjusted to support these new findings? One could say that this strategy could and should be applied to our present-day policies and systems, as we continue to learn more about diversity and equity in a society where most leaders claim to be anti-racist.
To say that people who identify with different groups should each have rules as it pertains to their individual ethnicities, genders, sexes, etc. - and then curating laws for each of these groups (unless we are talking about the protection and progression of marginalized groups), would most likely cause anger, confusion, and ultimately chaos. However, if rules could be shifted, revised, and enforced so that they are inclusive of all groups, then this would be a step towards equitable living and outcomes for all.
Sha’Carri Richardson, THAT girl
I am a Black woman with long nails, big natural hair, or sometimes braids/locs that extend beyond my lower back. Needless to say, seeing Sha’Carri being her authentic self while blowing past her competitors on that track took my breath away, and brought joyful tears to my eyes. So I am sure you can imagine my heartbreak, and that of many others at the news of her suspension.
I believe that we have rules for a reason. They need to be followed. And Sha’Carri’s actions did violate a rule she was expected to abide by. But I also cannot say that the rule banning illegal substances for Olympic participants has historically been enforced in a way that is equitable for all, regardless of race. Here are the facts:
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), as well as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), have authority over the Olympic Games. As a result, both organizations have specific rules and regulations as it pertains to substance use and abuse. According to the IOC’s Anti-doping rules, it is the athlete’s responsibility to ensure that prohibited substances do not enter their body. This rule holds true regardless of factors such as negligence, fault, or knowing use.
Proof of substance use and abuse is established through two test samples A and B. Proof is shown when Test A yields a positive result when the same outcome is observed in Test B. A positive result is also determined when it is present in Test A but Test B is refused or when Test A and B are split, tested, and there is a trace of the prohibited substance.
Sha’Carri Richardson confessed to using drugs prohibited by the Olympics to cope with the news of her biological mother’s death, after learning the news from a reporter. The results of her drug tests were aligned with this confession. While it is against the policies of the IOC, WADA, and as a result the Olympics, it was very much legal for Sha’Carri to smoke weed in the state of Oregon, where the trials were held.
According to article 4.4.1 of the International Olympic Committee:
“The presence of a Prohibited Substance or its Metabolites or Markers, and/or
the Use or Attempted Use, Possession or Administration or Attempted
Administration of a Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method shall not be
considered an anti-doping rule violation if it is consistent with the provisions
of a TUE granted in accordance with the International Standard for
Therapeutic Use Exemptions.”
There was something about knowing that Sha’Carri learned of a traumatic event by an unfamiliar face on television, and then used marijuana to cope, that made the word “therapeutic” in this specific article stick with me. So I kept digging and found the article 4.4 in the document IOC Anti-Doping Rules applicable to the Games of the XXXII Olympiad Tokyo 2020
In short, this article states that the substance in question will not be considered a violation of the anti-doping rules if it meets the guidelines of the International Standard for Therapeutic Use Exemptions. This prompted me to research what exactly these exemptions were, which can be found below.
a. "The Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method in question is needed to treat an acute or chronic medical condition, such that the Athlete would experience a significant impairment to health if the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method were to be withheld."
b. "The Therapeutic Use of the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method is highly unlikely to produce any additional enhancement of performance beyond what might be anticipated by a return to the Athlete’s normal state of health following the treatment of the acute or chronic medical condition. "
c. "There is no reasonable Therapeutic alternative to the Use of the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method. "
d. "The necessity for the Use of the Prohibited Substance or Prohibited Method is not a consequence, wholly or in part, of the prior Use (without a TUE) of a substance or method which was prohibited at the time of such Use. "
Thus the suspension of Sha’Carri from the Olympic games is problematic to me for three reasons:
It is legal to smoke marijuana in the state where the trials were held.
There is too much wiggle room within these exemptions to almost immediately deem her actions a violation of regulations and suspend her from the upcoming Olympic games without due process.
There have been many Olympic athletes that have been found to be using drugs that did not have the same absolute fate (keep reading for more details on this matter).
Lastly, the response of some on not only her consumption, but also the comments on her features such as her long hair, nails, and how this can be attributed to performance enhancing drugs, brings to light the lack of cultural competence of the individuals who have made said comments and those that share the same thoughts. This also exemplifies the lack of grace extended to POC when we make mistakes, and the fabrication of and investigation into anything that will diminish our character.
Michael Phelps: Why the Comparison Matters
I’ve seen this comparison circulating on the internet, so I'd like to take a deep dive here. Many people have begun to compare the actions of Michael Phelps to Sha’Carri Richardson to prove that rules are not always enforced in ways that are equitable for all groups to which they apply. If you’ve gotten up to this point, you already know that the IOC is the governing body of the Olympic Games, but this entity also reserves the right to strip athletes of their medals when they have violated regulations of the games. Now why is this important? Let’s learn a little more about Michael Phelps.
Michael Phelps is a competitive swimmer and one of the most successful Olympic athletes of all time, having earned 28 medals throughout his career. In the past, Phelps has struggled with substance abuse and as a result, has been dealt suspensions and fines - but was allowed to compete in subsequent competitions and has had not one medal stripped from his Olympic record.
There was a photo of Phelps which circulated following the Beijing Olympics in which he was smoking marijuana. It has since been loosely confirmed that since the photo began circulating after the Olympics, that this incident clearly did not happen while he was competing. This is the argument of numerous news outlets working tirelessly to defend his behavior and solidify Sha’Carri’s wrong-doing. Phelps has also spoken out on doping in the Olympics, he even testified before a congressional panel that he could not affirm that those who he was competing against were clean. So what's really going on? Nevertheless, let’s move on.
This brings me to the Russian Doping Scandal. This scandal highlights Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov and how he brought to light a doping scandal that allowed Russian athletes to bypass drug testing and still compete in the Olympics for over four years. Rodchenkov has since fled to America out of fear for his life and that of his family. According to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, Russia has refused to accept accountability in this doping scandal involving their athletes. Furthermore, the International Olympic Committee has half-heartedly held them accountable. When this scandal came to light, Russia was not fully banned from these games, a number of athletes were still allowed to participate. In addition, the lifetime bans placed on most of the 43 athletes who were found guilty of taking illegal substances have been overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But the white privilege does not end here, three Russian athletes found guilty of taking illegal substances are actually sued Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov for defamation of character.
Let’s bring it back to Michael Phelps: award-winning athlete who has had several encounters with illegal substances. According to USA Today, Phelps said that he can admit to believing that some of his competitors were using performance enhancing drugs. Furthermore, 1,913 athletes across 10 different sports, who all were known to have issues with drugs, were NOT tested (or should I say have no record of being tested) in 2016. In fact, of the 11,470 athletes who participated in the Rio Olympics, 4,125 of those athletes have no record of being tested at all.
In closing, was Sha’Carri Richardson wrong for smoking marijuana before a race, knowing that she would be tested? Absolutely. Does she deserve to be held accountable? Most definitely. However, while Sha’Carri is being held accountable for using an illegal substance, thousands who have done the same do not have the same fate. The most privileged are able to curate elaborate schemes to achieve their desired outcomes. When faced with a penalty, for reasons ranging from privilege to power, their consequences are not nearly the same. There is even a stark difference in how people who are guilty of the same crime are viewed by the same members of society. If a white athlete does drugs, it's just that - they made a mistake and usually write a statement admitting fault, and how they will use this experience to make them a better person. This is usually accepted by society. However, when a Black girl like Sha’Carri makes a mistake, society goes beyond her behavior and statement to pinpoint how aspects of her culture must absolutely be a side-effect of her drug use. I am referring explicitly to the ignorant woman who concluded that Sha’Carri’s long beautiful nails and hair were a side effect of steroid use. It’s the attempt to diminish her character rather than simply hold her accountable that could lead one to believe the hope was for her to fail all along.
Unless the Olympic Games and associating parties are ready to hold all participants equally accountable, I most definitely believe they need to #letherrun.
Implications for Education
There is a need to stop criminalizing Black and Brown students through rules and systems that focus on structure, power, and outdated/unnecessary standards. Please stay tuned for my following piece on this matter.