Sha’Carri Richardson is poised for greatness. At just 21 years old, the young woman is ranked as the sixth fastest woman in history. She’d already made the top 10 list at age 19, when she ran the 100-meter spring in 10.75 seconds as a freshman at Louisiana State University, breaking the record for the National Collegiate Athletic Association Championships. In April of 2021, she broke her own record, running 100 meters in 10.72 seconds. That gave her the sixth-best ranking in world history, and the fourth fastest American woman of all time.

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She also won the United States Olympic Trials for that same race, qualifying for the 2020 Summer Olympics. She was expected to take the Gold for that race. But then, her world came crashing down. Richardson was raised by her grandmother. Videos show her sprinting over to her grandmother to embrace after learning she’d qualified for the Olympics.

However, while she was in Oregon for the Olympic trials, just before the race, a reporter informed her during an interview that her biological mother had died unexpectedly.  “It was definitely triggering, it was definitely nerve-shocking,” Richardson said. “No offense to him at all, he’s just doing his job, but definitely, that set me in a state of mind – in a state of emotional panic, if anything.” She says she was blinded by her emotions.  The United States Anti-Doping Agency announced on July 2nd that Richardson’s drug tests had come back positive for THC, the active chemical in marijuana.

She says she smoked cannabis to help her cope with the pain in losing her mother.  “I want to take responsibility for my actions. I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do. I know what I’m allowed not to do, and I still made that decision.” Richardson said. “I’m not making an excuse or looking for any empathy in my case.”

No laws were broken since recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon. However, the Olympics does not permit its use. The 2021 World Anti-Doping Code classifies THC as a “Substance of Abuse” because it is used in day-to-day life outside of the context of the sport itself.  The Olympics are much stricter about cannabis than most professional sports leagues in the United States.

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Normally with the Olympics, an athlete who tests positive for THC use outside of competition would get a three-month sanction where they’re ineligible to complete. Richardson’s suspension was reduced to one month because she’s agreed to complete a Substance of Abuse treatment program put in place by the Anti-Doping Agency.

The fiasco also erased her trials performance while she was in Oregon, meaning she no longer qualifies for the race, even though that one-month suspension will be up by the time the race is being run. The period of ineligibility was marked at June 28th, 2021. For a substance to end up on the list of banned substances, it has to either pose a health risk to athletes; have the potential to enhance performance; or “violate the spirit of the sport.”

The Olympics’ viewpoint is that although marijuana is not necessarily performance-enhancing, it can help athletes reduce their stress levels or take in more calories, and thus can affect their performance in some way. 

Richardson is left off the U.S. Olympic Team

The American Olympic team could still choose to have her participate in the 4x100-meter relay, but U.S.A. Track & Field decided to leave her off the team.  In a statement, the agency simply said, “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.”

In an interview on the Today Show, when asked how she’s doing, Richardson told Savannah Guthrie she’s blessed to be alive, “but that’s about it.” “To have to go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain,” said Richardson. “Who am I to tell you how to cope when you’re dealing with a pain or dealing with a struggle you’ve never experienced before?”

Biden Weighs In

President Biden weighed in on Richardson’s position as well, largely agreeing with what the athlete said of herself when he stated, “The rules are the rules.” The 46th president has said he would not legalize marijuana at the federal level until further study is done to prove whether there is any true evidence to support the notion that marijuana can serve as a gateway drug. 

“Everybody knows the rules going in,” President Biden told CBS reporter Bo Erickson. “Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue.” The president continued, saying, “I was really proud of the way she responded.” Richardson had a comment about that very notion about the need to follow rules.

Just the day before President Biden made his remarks, she retweeted an attorney who commented, “People talking about ‘rules are rules’ but half of y’all couldn’t even abide by public health guidelines during a pandemic.” Richardson has been vocal about the incident on Twitter, with some of her remarks gaining over half a million reactions.

On July 3rd, the same day President Biden commented on her situation, she tweeted out, “All these perfect people that know how to live life, I’m glad I’m not one of them!” and “I’m sorry, I can’t be y’all Olympic Champ this year but I promise I’ll be your World Champ next year.” On July 1st, the day before the news broke, she stated simply, “I am human.”

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency CEO, Travis Tygart, said in a statement,  “The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels; hopefully, 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.” Richardson is not the first athlete involved in the Olympics to have been caught using marijuana. When a video surfaced of 23-time Olympic Gold medalist Michael Phelps smoking weed, he lost several sponsorships and was banned from competition for three months.