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The initial public reaction is to always think the worst, and that’s not the fault of the listener. Sports has broken our hearts too many times with its artificial and performance-enhancing cheating schemes, putting the phrase “failed drug test” permanently into our sporting lexicon.
So when news broke Thursday night that American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson had been nabbed by the United States Anti-Doping Agency and suspended from the Olympic team because of one of those failed tests, doubts were immediately cast over her electrifying Olympic Trials performance.
Richardson, the 21-year-old speedster from LSU, broke out of the trials as one of our nation’s biggest stars and brightest hopes for Olympic gold in Tokyo, blazing to victory in a loaded 100-meter field in 10.86 seconds. With her newly tinted orange hair trailing behind her like flames, she captured our hearts not only with her performance on the track, but with her moving story off it, seen in the emotional hug she climbed into the stands to share with her grandmother.
And that human story is at the heart of what she’s going through now.
As we know now, it wasn’t any sort of steroid or performance-enhancer that was found in Richardson’s test sample. It was marijuana, a drug that is legal in Oregon, where the trials were held, continues to be legalized in states across the country, but remains on the banned list by the World and US Anti-Doping agencies. Richardson knows this, and in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show Friday morning, took every ounce of responsibility for ingesting what she knew could trigger a suspension.
But she cited off-the-field heartache, how she’d found out from a reporter at the event that her biological mother had passed away, and how that presented such a mental health challenge that she turned to marijuana for relief.
“I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do ... and I still made that decision,” Richardson said. “I’m not making an excuse or looking for empathy in my case. However, being in that position in my life, finding out something like that ... Dealing with the relationship I have with my mother, that definitely was a very heavy topic on me.”
The mental health of athletes is a similarly heavy topic, one that has gained more and more public attention in recent years, so much so it was listed by both USOPC chairperson Susanne Lyons and chief executive Sarah Hirshland as one of the organization’s top priorities in a recent teleconference with reporters. As Hirshland said, the emphasis on mental health needs isn’t just important for Olympians on their watch, but “for society writ large.”
As marijuana becomes an increasingly more reputable and prescribed way to deal with those issues, it’s probably time for organizations such as WADA to catch up. But according to the Washington Post, the World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibited list published on Jan. 1 lists the chemical compound found in marijuana, THC, next to cocaine, MDMA/ecstasy, and heroin as a substance of abuse and that the rule book says they are considered substances of abuse because they “are frequently abused in society outside of the context of sport.”
Richardson made the mistake of using the substance while competing, even if there was no connection to her performance, and even if society’s attitude toward marijuana has changed so drastically. She’s been raw and honest in explaining why.
“To hear that information coming from a complete stranger, it was definitely triggering,” Richardson told NBC. “It was definitely nerve-shocking. It was just like, who are you to tell me that? No offense against him at all. He was just doing his job. But definitely, that sent me into a state of mind, a state of emotional panic.
“I still have to go out and put out a performance for my dream, go out there and still compete. From there, just blinded by emotions, just blinded by hurting. I knew I couldn’t hide myself. In some type of way, I was just trying to hide my pain.”
Richardson could still make it to Tokyo. Not in the 100, where her Trials performance was erased and rules dictate that she is no longer eligible, as the team is selected strictly by Trials finishes. The US could select her to a relay team, as her one-month suspension will be completed by the time the races begin. Seems here like a good solution for now to a problem that is going to have to be addressed in the future.
“This is just one Games,” Richardson said. “I’m 21 ... Sitting here, I just say, don’t judge me, because I am human. I’m you. I just happen to run a little faster.”
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.