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The Case of Sha’Carri Richardson, The Olympics, and Cannabis

July 26, 2021 08:00 am ET
The Case of Sha’Carri Richardson, The Olympics, and Cannabis

Many of you may have seen the widespread social media postings in support of Sha’Carri Richardson. This world-class athlete failed a drug test after having consumed cannabis, which resulted in her disqualification from the 130-person roster for the Summer Olympics. Without skipping a beat, Richardson graciously took responsibility and stated, “I apologize for the fact that I didn’t know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time”. What kind of society have we created where a 21-year-old is being scrutinized for turning to cannabis in times of need? Cannabis is a substance that is not only natural but also effective in alleviating anxiety, stress as well as boosting one’s mood. 

Sha’Carri Richardson’s Situation Can’t be Compared to Michael Phelps

This decision involving the US Anti-Doping Agency, USATF, or the US Olympic & Paralympic committee set light to worldwide frustration and even anger. Citizens find the ruling to be discriminatory and somewhat prejudiced, especially when you consider the case of Michael Phelps- who consumed cannabis but was still allowed to complete. Contradictions like this lead people to hypothesize that their ruling was perhaps based on more than her drug results, perhaps her skin color, her gender, or perhaps the fact that she represents a generation of black women empowerment where the women who are confidently and irrevocably themselves? 

When petitioning letters were sent on behalf of Sha’Carri, all authorities just shifted blame and pointed fingers to the other as the one responsible. We’re still not clear on which anti-doping agency makes the rules or who we even should speak to in order to petition for change. 

While Phelps did use cannabis, USA Today explains that it is unfair to compare his situation. Sha’Carri Richardson consumed cannabis BEFORE the Olympic trials, while he smoked AFTER the Olympic events. However, what they’re failing to consider is the fact that life deals us unexpected hands, such as the loss of a loved one. Richardson consumed cannabis as a result of hearing of her mother’s death from a reporter, a complete stranger. Who wouldn’t turn to cannabis in this situation? The problem remains that she consumed cannabis within the Olympic in-competition period which runs from “just before midnight on the day before a competition…until the end of the competition and the sample collection process”. 

At the End of the Day, Olympic Athletes Are Also Human

The Guardian presented the concerns of important points including, but not limited to, what kind of example she is setting as a celebrity, are rules to be bent based on context or a good reason as well as that she knew the rules and still broke them anyway, end of discussion. While these points can be construed as harsh, they can also be used to spin a positive light on the matter. Let’s see how. 

  • She’s Set an Inspiring Example

Sha’Carri Richardson did not set an example of one that is related to drug addiction, being reckless and out of control but rather set an inspiring example. Many people who lose someone like a parent tend to withdraw from life and responsibilities, but instead of doing that, she made the mature choice to use a natural and effective substance to help her deal with her loss so that she can show up and do the work. Rather than leaning on the opinion that she promoted illicit drug use, the more realistic perception of the example she set would be that of a woman, who despite adversity and pain, consumed an effective, less risky substance to deal with her pain. As opposed to opiates being passed out like candy in the competitive world of sports…opioids which contribute to more deaths and addiction than cannabis will ever claim.  

  • Solutions are More Effective When Context is Considered

Rules may not have to be bent but context and good reason should be considered when handing out consequences. Rules are important for keeping everyone on the same page in terms of acceptable and unacceptable behavior and performance. However, considering Richardson’s drug track record, recent events and the change in cannabis stigma, excluding her from the Olympics was not only unfair to her but puts the team at a disadvantage for losing such an exquisite athlete. Perhaps, and this is just conjecture, they could have put her on a mandatory 14-day cannabis detox followed by a rerun of the Olympic trial test to see if she could redo her running time or even improve upon it. There are always better ways to deal with violations of rules when considering context and good reason. The world is made up of black-and-white matter but is also rather far more complex and colorful, with solutions and ideas at every corner if we are open-minded enough to see them. But then again, what is the point when none of the authorities are willing to take responsibility for the ruling in the first place? 

  • Richardson Knew the Rules, She Broke Them, But She Also Owned Up to Her Mistake

No, it’s not the end of the discussion. EVERY single person has broken rules throughout their lifetime, some who got away with it and others who have not. While Richardson is living life under a media microscope and in the spotlight, she should not be excluded from the accommodations which come with being human.

Richardson made a powerful statement in three words on Twitter which was reported to be another testament to her emotional intelligence. Her tweet read “I am human”- short, powerful, and most appropriate. Humans make mistakes, break rules, struggle with loss, struggle with emotional management, etc. If we were to end the discussion at she knew the rules but broke them anyway, then by logic, we should apply the same to everyone else; we should backtrack on, and give consequence to, every celebrity or figure who has broken rules, which would include the likes of Oprah, Roxana Saberi, Madonna, Kylie Jenner, etc- though this is only to prove a point and not an actual suggestion. We can not be selective over who things like this apply to, especially not when the context lets some people off the hook and others not. 

Having These Open Discussions Will Help Break the Stigma

The fact that Sha’Carri Richardson knew the rules and still broke them in order to try and cope with her mother’s passing shows that she did not make a light decision but perhaps she thought she was making the best of the circumstances. If she had not consumed cannabis, she may not have been able to compete as a result of anxiety, stress, or worse- depression.

If cannabis has no impact on her performance, it would not have affected her performance in the trials. So, why shouldn’t we discuss it and take context into consideration, especially since cannabis stigma is changing too? Why should athletes not be allowed to consume something that takes the edge off when the competitive environment associated with the Olympics can be more stressful than many can imagine? Strict schedules, intense performance pressure, being extra careful of life outside the private confines of home, going to a whole different country to compete on a global platform… the vast majority of us could never possibly understand what that’s like. If Sha’Carri Richardson hadn’t gotten disqualified over cannabis, she undoubtedly would’ve brought back a gold medal. 

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