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OPINION: Systemic racism continues to prevail in U.S. Olympics

Sha’Carri Richardson’s suspension needs to be lifted


Sha’Carri Richardson, the fastest woman in America, has faced injustice in her month-long suspension at the Olympic Games due to cannabis use, causing her to miss the 100m at the Tokyo Olympics on July 30. By enforcing this suspension, which started on June 28, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is supporting racist policies and displaying a lack of grace and compassion towards those participating.

The test was administered by the U.S Anti-Doping Agency to ensure a level playing field without drug use. However, it is important to note that cannabis is not considered a performance-enhancing drug by The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness; therefore, it should not be a reason to penalize athletes.

At the time of Richardson’s disqualification from the individual 100m, it was unclear whether she would be allowed to be a member of the 100m relay team, especially looking at the upcoming 4-x-100 meter Olympics relay taking place in Tokyo on Aug. 5 and 6. On Tuesday, it was announced by the United States of America Track and Field (USATF) that Richardson would not be selected, displaying support for these outdated drug policies. 

The farce that the USATF cares about upholding fairness is disregarded by the lack of real acknowledgement for Richardson’s effort and dedication, proving that they care more about keeping her out than evening the playing field.

“While our heartfelt understanding lies with Sha’Carri, we must also maintain fairness for all athletes who attempted to realize their dreams by securing a place on the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team,” the USATF said in a statement.

The Olympics’ drug policy is effectively a continuation of the war on drugs, according to the Washington Post. This war is an inherently racist set of public policies introduced by Richard Nixon and continued by subsequent administrations. In 1998, the Clinton administration gave one million dollars to the international Olympic committee to “cleanse” drugs from sports, including recreational drugs, as the administration determined Olympians should be considered “role models.”

The implication that cannabis is in direct conflict with being a good “role model” is a disgusting assumption by the government, which further perpetuates the villainization of people of color and sends a message that continued enforcement of racially targeted policies is moral, which it is so clearly not. 

On NBC, Richardson said she was using cannabis as a way to cope with the sudden news of her mother’s passing, one of the most difficult challenges an individual can go through. Cannabis is regularly used to treat symptoms of depression and anxiety and has been legal for medical purposes since the ‘90s in some states, proving that even if there wasn’t a major death in her life, the marijuana use is not an issue.

If the offense had been a drink of alcohol rather than the use of cannabis — which should be viewed on an equal level anyway — Richardson’s reaction to her mother’s death would be viewed as an honest response to the crippling panic and shock that a personal death forces on your mental health. When policies respond differently to culturally equivalent actions, it’s obvious that these are harsh punishments singling out specific racial groups.

The lack of empathy by the IOC towards Richardson’s loss caused her dream to be put on hold even though she used cannabis in Oregon, a state where both recreational and medical use is completely legal, and in a nation where it is legal in 18 states and the District of Columbia.

Many public figures have come to Richardson’s defense, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who said the policy was racist and a legacy of colonist policies. She also cited the recent ban on swim caps as “deeply troubling,” an accessory meant to protect natural black hair at Olympics swimming events — further evidence of the systemic racism in the U.S. Olympics system.

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The IOC’s firm anti-cannabis stance is also contrary to patterns we are seeing in other professional sports, where cannabis use is rightly becoming more normalized and accepted. In recent years, the cannabis use policies of the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and National Football League have eased in terms of penalties. Only the National Basketball Association still has major repercussions for recreational cannabis use, including large fines and suspensions.

There is an ongoing petition that has currently received over 500,000 signatures calling for Richardson to be allowed to compete in the 100m dash and for the IOC to change their policies around marijuana, noting that “recreational marijuana use has been de facto legal for upper-middle-class white people for years,” and that the enforcement of this policy against a woman of color is highly reflective of the lasting racial effects of the war on drugs.  

“In no world is marijuana a performance-enhancing drug for runners, and in more places in the United States and around the world, marijuana use is legal,” the petition reads.

By continuing to uphold outdated and racist policies, the IOC is disrespecting and mocking an incredibly powerful role model. Young, queer women of color who recognize some aspect of themselves in Richardson deserve to see themselves represented by someone as strong and unapologetically themselves as Richardson is on a global stage.

Eliminating Richardson’s chance to take part in the Olympic Games before they have even started is an embarrassment for the IOC. It is time for them to take away the policies that ban cannabis use, and reassess themselves and the racism that still prevails in their organization. The IOC must be held accountable. 

The spirit of the Olympics as written in their creed is “not to have won, but to have fought well” — a creed that is clearly not being upheld. 

Madeline Pukite is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @madelinepukite

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