Richardson’s trip across the Olympic stage has been meteoric, and not just because of the way her orange hair streamed behind her on the track. Her trajectory was brilliant, and over too soon for reasons that strike many observers as profoundly unfair. Unlike Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds, who relied on performance-enhancing drugs to dominate their sports, Richardson used marijuana for relief from what she described as “emotional panic” following her biological mother’s death. Richardson wasn’t making a false claim to excellence: She made the sort of decision any 21-year-old might have made in painful, high-pressure circumstances.
The dilemmas that famous people in all professions face, and the imperfect solutions they seek, are a lot more visible now than they were in previous generations. In part, that’s to the credit of a less-compliant press. But stars themselves have also traded in mystery for accessibility. Why cultivate a mystique like Greta Garbo when it’s possible to make millions influencing on Instagram? Why let a studio or a label shape and license your image when you can launch a lingerie or makeup company yourself?
But there is a difference between watching an elite athlete like Richardson with awe and relating to celebrities such as the Kardashian-Jenner family, the modern masters of this art. Their hit reality franchise revealed that no amount of money can prevent a partner from straying, ward off depression or guarantee a glowing pregnancy. But for the right price, fans can buy the “waist trainers,” butt-boosting jeans and makeup that the family sells as the nongenetic keys to their good looks.
Athletes get endorsement deals, too, but there’s a distinction: There is nothing any of us can buy that will let us feel what it’s like to run as fast as Richardson, to dunk like LeBron James or to defy gravity like champion gymnast Simone Biles — except maybe a virtual reality headset.
When it comes to great athletes, astonishment, not relatability, is the point.
To watch Biles add new moves to her incredible repertoire is to witness something highly unusual: an athlete shifting an entire sport with the power of her own distinctive excellence.
There are plenty of people who hate quarterback Tom Brady. But it’s hard to deny the willpower and wiliness that have allowed him to continue to excel at what, by the standards of professional football, is an advanced age.
Michael Jordan remains an object of fascination almost 20 years after his retirement from the NBA because of the combination of physical gifts and mental toughness that made him a standout among standouts. No matter how much Gatorade wanted to convince consumers that they could “Be Like Mike,” the ad that originated the slogan acknowledged that the aspiration was pure fantasy.
But this sense of wonder has a corresponding downside, both for athletes and for the fans who marvel at their abilities. It’s all too easy to equate physical excellence with superior morality.
The revulsion that follows when athletes inevitably fail to live up to that standard can be both a product of that irrational expectation — and a correction to it. But professional associations can also invoke that expectation to punish athletes for the very thing that would make them highly marketable in another context: their humanity.
That’s what happened to Richardson.
The World Anti-Doping Agency’s rationale for treating marijuana like a logistical or moral danger to sport isn’t exactly overwhelming. Getting high a week before a race won’t make a runner wobble out of their lane, and pot is increasingly legal and accessible. If the issue is nerves, the organization doesn’t ban selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Zoloft that might have helped Richardson if she’d had a crisis in time to get on a properly calibrated anti-anxiety regimen. Instead, she’s been denied the professional opportunity of a lifetime because of an attempt to manage a normal human reaction to tragedy.
The only good news in this mess is that Richardson will still have a career to return to after her suspension. She’s set her sights on the 2022 World Championships and Nike will continue to sponsor her. Maybe Richardson’s continued excellence can make clear that humanity doesn’t detract from athletes’ awe-inspiring feats: Their ability to rise where others might stumble and sink only make those achievements more impressive.