Ms. Richardson’s disqualification from the solo 100-meter, which she won in Olympic qualifiers, was unavoidable. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) clearly lists THC as a prohibited substance. USA Track & Field (USATF), the national governing body, had no choice but to deal Richardson the minimal penalty: a month-long competition ban that unfortunately covers her signature event. Ms. Richardson has been candid about the “emotional panic” following her mother’s death during trials that led her to smoke. To her credit, she graciously accepted her suspension: “I know what I’m not allowed to do and I still made that decision.”
No rule, however, bars Ms. Richardson from competing in the 4x100-meter relay, which will occur after the 30-day ban has expired. USATF just chose not to let her.
USATF has full discretion over who fills two of the four slots in each Olympic relay. That way, coaches can construct their strongest team regardless of qualifying times — and they do, sometimes resurrecting star athletes who underperform during trials. The death of a loved one is trodden ground for a discretionary pick: Katie Zaferes, an American triathlete, is heading to Tokyo despite a string of disappointing finishes following her father’s death. So Ms. Richardson’s inclusion in the 4x100-meter relay was perfectly possible, though officials said it would have meant replacing another runner who had already been named to the team. Rather than make such a substitution, which officials said was not provided for in their selection criteria, USATF has effectively extended her suspension.
Incredibly, the United States’ fastest woman will now miss her shot in Tokyo over a rule the federation itself doesn’t seem to believe should exist: USATF said in a statement regarding the relay selection that it “fully agrees that the merit of the World Anti-Doping Agency rules related to THC should be reevaluated.” Certainly, USATF is right to protect its credibility in a sporting world plagued by performance-enhancing drugs. But USATF has already enforced the rules by disqualifying her from the solo 100. When the 4x100 rolls around, she will have done her time.
Marijuana is hardly known for speeding people up. WADA itself no longer attempts to make the argument that THC enhances performance; a new ban category unveiled in 2021 is labeled “unrelated to sports practice.” The list? Cocaine, heroin, ecstasy and marijuana, or substances “frequently abused in society." Alcohol, the United States’ most commonly abused substance, is notably snubbed; it would be ludicrous, after all, to bar athletes from consuming a legal product that does little to boost athletic achievement. Yet marijuana, too, is legal in a growing number of states, including the one Ms. Richardson smoked in, and well on its way to becoming a booming, regulated industry.
WADA’s archaic rules on weed seem to have more to do with moralizing than sport. USTAF should lobby for those rules to change rather than lend legitimacy to poor policy by restricting a star athlete from a race that could allow her to run without departing from rule or precedent. Sha’Carri Richardson will be back to breaking records soon, but by preventing her participation this summer, the United States is playing against itself.