If you’re weighing in on or merely contemplating the story of Sha’Carri Richardson – the 21-year-old sprinter who won the 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic Trials only to be disqualified, because of a positive marijuana test, from competing in the event at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo this month – it’s probably a good idea to keep one name in mind:
Back in the late 1970s, when he was America’s hottest standup comedian, picking a banjo and wearing a fake arrow through his head, Martin would joke that he had a surefire way to reduce crime throughout the country: “death penalty for parking violations.” The line got laughs then, but as time has passed it has become just about the best way to sum up the approach that the World Anti-Doping Agency and its subsidiary, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, take toward performance-enhancing drug use and the Olympics.
If you’re committed to eradicating bad or unethical behavior in all its forms, you might tend to go overboard sometimes, even if your intentions are good, and instead end up disregarding any measure of perspective or common sense. This is what WADA and USADA have done for years in the name of cleaning up sports. They always suspend first and worry about proportion and due process later, always in the name of keeping up with the cheaters, and this is what has happened to Richardson. She learned, during the trials, that her biological mother had died. She smoked some pot to cope. USADA suspended her for a month.
“I know what I did,” Richardson said Friday morning during an interview on NBC. “I know what I’m supposed to and allowed not to do. I made that decision. Not making an excuse or looking for any empathy in my case. Being in that position in my life, finding out something like that, something that I would say is one of the biggest things that has impacted me positively and negatively, when it comes to my relationship with my mother, that definitely was a very heavy topic on me.”
Put aside the question of whether you think it appropriate for anyone to smoke pot, or drink alcohol, or self-medicate in any fashion to deal with grief and stress, because that question is irrelevant. The notion that an Olympic-caliber athlete would use marijuana to gain an advantage during a 100-meter sprint, the event that confers the title World’s Fastest Woman, is ridiculous on its face, and no one is arguing that Richardson’s intent here was to enhance her performance or cheat. If it had been, she would have been suspended for two years, per WADA’s rules. Not even USADA itself is making that claim.
“The rules are clear,” USADA chief executive officer Travis T. Tygart said in a statement, “but this is heartbreaking on many levels; hopefully, her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions despite the costly consequences of this one to her.”
Except Richardson’s decision should be “regrettable” to WADA and USADA only within the context of whether she made it with the intention and effect of enhancing her performance. Tygart here sounds less like an arbiter of fair play than he does a drug czar urging Richardson to just say no. Earlier this year, WADA allowed that substances such as cocaine, heroin, ecstasy, and cannabis – substances that generally aren’t thought of or used as performance-enhancers – would carry a lesser penalty than steroids or other PEDs. But one has to wonder why these agencies demand that recreational marijuana use, regardless of its legality in a particular state or country, carry any penalty at all.
Japan, the site of these Summer Games, has notoriously strict anti-cannabis laws. But Richardson smoked pot in Oregon, where marijuana use is legal. No matter: WADA’s rules leave little to no room for nuance and never have. In 2017, Daniel Jose Gandert, an assistant professor at Northwestern University’s law school and a former legal intern for USA Track & Field, wrote an article for the Maryland Journal of International Law. The article’s title: “The WADA Code: Optimal on Paper.”
The agency’s “strong penalties coupled with room for arbitrator flexibility where warranted because of an athlete’s circumstances, along with the universality of the code, make it the optimal anti-doping system in theory ...” Gandert wrote. “The system does not work as well in practice.”
No kidding. It’s easy to tut-tut Richardson or anyone else defending her and say, Well, she knew what the rules were, and the rules are the rules. But at some point, such scolds and pedants should ask themselves whether the rules themselves and the punishments for violating them are reasonable.
To continue Martin’s old comedic analogy, just because the rules say you will face a firing squad for forgetting to feed your meter doesn’t mean that the rules are intelligent or appropriate. Not that we want to give the Philadelphia Parking Authority any ideas.