With a time of 10.72 seconds in the 100m sprint, Sha’Carri Richardson is the sixth fastest woman in history. She was also one of the main contenders for the Tokyo gold medal. However, the American sprinter did not compete in the Tokyo Olympics, despite being an important and well-known member of the US Olympic team.
So why did Richardson not compete? She tested positive for cannabis use during US athletics qualifiers. She was not attempting to gain some unfair advantage, that other banned substances could provide. No. She was just using the substance in her free time to relax and enjoy herself, the same way someone would treat themselves to a drink. The substance is already legal for a third of the US population.
Richardson was not selected to represent the United States at these games in July after she was positive for cannabis use during the qualifying tests.
The US Anti-Doping Agency suspended her from participating in any sport for one month as punishment. Technically, her 30-day suspension expired during the Tokyo Games. However, the US Athletics Committee decided not to include her in the team.
World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) considers cannabis, excluding CBD, an anti-sports drug and prohibits its use. But activists are campaigning to change that. Of course, cannabis is still a widely illegal substance. But it raises the question of whether an illegal substance that provides no performance benefit to an athlete should be banned in sports. A large part is to do with public perception. But the world is becoming increasingly tolerant of cannabis. Is it time that the sporting world follow suit?
Why is cannabis banned in sport at all?
So why is it banned? The disqualification has rekindled the long-running debate about cannabis prohibition in sports and by extension, the Olympics. Since cannabis is legal in many US states and its performance enhancing properties are contested, many wonder whether it should still be banned.
Since 2004, when the World Anti-Doping Agency created its Prohibited Substances List; Cannabis, of course, was banned. The list includes items that meet two out of three criteria: they harm athletes’ health, increase performance, or are against the spirit of the sport. The second point is controversial in relation to cannabis.
In an article published in Sports Medicine, WADA advocated for banning cannabis. Citing a study of marijuana’s ability to reduce anxiety, WADA said it can help athletes “perform better under pressure and relieve the stress felt before and during competition.”
Of course, there is still ongoing to debate on whether this qualifies as performance enhancing. Some point out that alcohol and cigarettes could be banned using the same logic.
Alain Steve Comtois is the director of the department of sports science at the University of Quebec in Montreal. He argues that these findings are not enough to warrant the conclusion that cannabis is a performance-enhancing drug.
He stated to BBC that “you have to have an overall view.” “Yes, anxiety levels drop but actual physiological data shows that performance is decreased.” Comtois was also one of the authors of a review of studies by Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness Review on cannabis use prior to exercise and its ability improve athletic performance.
This article found that marijuana interferes with the physiological reactions necessary for high performance, increasing blood pressure, and decreasing strength and stability. The paper didn’t examine marijuana’s effects on anxiety. But Comtois claims that its other negative effects could more than negate any benefits. Many believe that the negative physiological effects massively outweigh the reduced nerves.
Can drugs and good sportsmanship coexist?
But there’s more to WADA’s rule than just banning performance-enhancing drugs.
WADA was founded in 1999 following several doping scandals at Olympics. It aimed to be a leader in the fight against doping in sport around the globe. No country on the planet had yet legalized cannabis, when WADA made its list of banned substances in 2004.
John Hoberman (a cultural historian at the University of Texas Austin who studies anti-doping history) said that they didn’t want “social respectability issues.”
WADA cited its illicit drug status in a 2011 paper, as one reason marijuana offended “sportsmanship”, point 3, and wasn’t compatible with the model athlete. They believed an athlete should be a role model for young people all over the world, which of course excluded cannabis.
Richardson was not the only one who received reprimands for violating this rule. Before WADA even made the banned drug list, the International Olympic Committee attempted to seize the gold medal from Ross Rebagliati, a Canadian snowboarder, because he had tested positive. American sprinter John Capel was banned for two years after failing a test in 2006. After photos of Michael Phelps smoking marijuana online were published, he was removed from Kellogg’s sponsorship for three months.
A growing acceptance has been shown for the medical use of cannabis, with many countries including the UK allowing it. It is illegal in the United States but legal in around a third of states, including Oregon where Richardson was positive.
Cannabis has seen a shift in society’s attitudes towards it over the last decade all over the globe. Although many countries had legalized medical use or decriminalized use of the drug, Uruguay became the first country to legalize the sale of the substance in 2013. Other countries have also become much more tolerant of the substance since. Georgia, Canada, South Africa and Mexico have followed in Uruguay’s footsteps and legalized cannabis.
WADA removed cannabidiol (CBD) from its list of banned substances in 2019. However, the product remains illegal in like Japan, where the 2021 Olympics were just held.
These changes have fuelled current criticisms about Richardson’s suspension. NBC News was told by the runner that she used the drug to cope with the death of her mother a week prior to the undercard.
WADA is faced with a dilemma amid a wave of sympathy towards Richardson. Hoberman said, “You cannot run an organization subject to rules and then just dissolve it at a convenient moment.”
“I am sorry if I have disappointed you”. She said that this will be the last time that the US returns home without gold in the 100m.
Will we see a change?
Richardson’s suspension even prompted American President, Joe Biden, to question the current law. Although he did not say it should be overturned.
“Rules are rules. Biden stated that everyone knows the rules, and that they are understood by all.” Biden spoke to reporters in Michigan. “Whether they should keep it that way or continue is another question.”
Even the US Anti-Doping Agency (the US authority that enforces WADA’s rules) said it was time to “review the matter.”
Although it is not yet clear when or even if WADA will consider banning cannabis, despite the growing pressure for them to do so. Richardson and other athletes in similar positions will either stay away from cannabis or watch from the sidelines for now.