Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN
It’s a strange twist at a strange time in sports: The fastest American woman has been banned from her signature event at the Tokyo Olympics for taking a performance decreasing drug.
Marijuana is legal in some form in most US states and completely legal in Oregon, where the US track and field trials were held and where runner Sha’Carri Richardson said she had used the drug to cope with the shock of learning about her biological mother’s death from a reporter.
Some people might argue that cannabis is a performance enhancer — because it calms nervous athletes down — but the NCAA, which also bans the use of cannabis by athletes, has a downloadable PowerPoint presentation on its website about how it can make athletes worse.
Richardson nevertheless dusted the competition in the 100-meter trials. Watch it here. She’s got wheels.
A group of lawmakers has complained, but the case appears to be closed. Richardson accepted her fate with contrition during an appearance last week on the “Today” show.
“Don’t judge me, because I am human. I’m you,” she said. “I just happen to run a little faster.”
Her precise monthlong suspension might just be short enough that she could still compete at the Olympics in the 4×100 meter relay. The Games run from July 23 to August 8.
Rules are rules. Everyone from the head of the US Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, to President Joe Biden is sad about this, but they’re also intent on following the rules.
“Her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions, despite the costly consequences of this one to her,” Tygart said in a news release Friday.
“The rules are the rules,” Biden said Saturday at an event in Michigan. “Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules.”
Rules also change. One aggravating fact is that Olympic bans are often changed and penalties blunted. Russia was banned completely from international sport for four years. The ban was later reduced to two years. And Russian athletes — more than 300 of them — will compete at the Tokyo Olympics; they just won’t be identified as Russian. Read more.
Biden can’t change sports doping rules, but he could help change US law. The debate over marijuana is very much on point in the US, where it is more and more accepted after years and years when laws against its use were applied to a disproportionate number of Black Americans.
Even as it has become legal in more states, the federal government still technically considers it a “schedule 1” substance alongside heroin, which in the eyes of the federal government has no medical use. Read more here about the effort to change US law.
Legalize it. CNN’s Harry Enten wrote in March about polls that more than two-thirds of Americans now believe cannabis should be legalized for recreational use and suggested the Biden White House was about 10 years behind the curve.
Big companies like Amazon have changed their workplace expectations about marijuana and will not test job applicants. They are lobbying the federal government to legalize it.
Pro sports and pot. Leagues like the NFL and NBA have either relaxed their marijuana testing policies or begun to ignore them, although NBA players traveling to Tokyo as part of Team USA will be tested.
Cannabis is banned, according to the World Anti-Doping Agency, because it “violates the spirit of sport.”
The group did relax its rules on marijuana in 2013, requiring more THC to be detected in the blood to fail a test. It also removed CBD, which lacks the psychoactive compound THC, and which you see in more and more US products, from its banned list.
The story of why marijuana is expressly banned offers some useful context.
It was a Canadian snowboarder, Ross Rebagliati, who tested positive for marijuana in 1998 after winning a gold medal in Nagano — coincidentally, the last Olympics in Japan. He was even questioned by Japanese authorities, although unlike Richardson he denied using it himself and claimed he must have been near secondhand smoke. Rebagliati eventually got the medal back because of a technicality: Marijuana was not then expressly on the list of banned substances. It is now. (And Rebagliati’s now a cannabis entrepreneur, according to a 2018 profile.)
Dope not doping. The current male champion in the 100 meters, the American Christian Coleman, will also miss the Tokyo Olympics, because he missed three drug tests in 2019.
The resulting penalty was cut from 18 months to just a year but still included the Olympics.
Great athletes have weathered bans. Swimmer Michael Phelps was banned for three months after pictures of him smoking marijuana from a bong surfaced on the internet. He did not, however, miss any competitions.
Justin Gatlin, the American sprinter who won medals in multiple Olympics, waited out a four-year doping ban and ran in two more Olympics. He suffered an injury last month at the US Olympic trials and narrowly lost out on traveling to Tokyo.
Covid is taking out other athletes. Nick Suriano, a wrestler, took years off from college to prep first for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 and then in 2021. A positive Covid test forced him to miss the meet at which he would qualify. So he won’t go.
Kim Gaucher, a Canadian basketball player, had to fight to bring her breastfeeding 3-month-old to the games after Japanese authorities imposed a no-friends-or-family rule to control Covid.
“Right now, I’m being forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom or an Olympic athlete,” Gaucher had said. “I can’t have them both.”
Japan is holding the Olympics despite warnings from many public health professionals that they should be postponed again or called off. It is enacting strict protocols that limit the number of athletes and coaches who can travel to Tokyo and has removed spectators.
Yet athletes have already tested positive after arriving in Japan. That includes a Serbian rower.
Sports and the spread. There is already evidence that major sporting events do spread Covid. In Europe, the club soccer tournament being held in multiple cities, sometimes with tens of thousands of fans, has already demonstrated what can happen.
The tournament has been associated with an increase in cases in certain cities, according to reports from Reuters:
Scotland’s health authority said 1,991 people had been identified as attending a Euro 2020 event while infectious, of whom 1,294 had travelled to London and 397 gone to Wembley where England played Scotland.
Finland said more than 300 nationals were infected while supporting their team.
“We need to look at how people get there: Are they traveling in large crowded convoys of buses? And when they leave the stadiums, are they going into crowded bars and pubs to watch the matches?” World Health Organization senior emergency officer Catherine Smallwood said in a statement.
So it will be an Olympics without spectators. And without some of the best athletes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the drugs classified under “schedule 1.”
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