Born in the 21st century, Sha’Carri Richardson is barely 21-years-old. She is outspoken, stylish and one of the fastest women in the world.
She won the 100-meter U.S. Olympic trials in Oregon last month, sporting Technicolor hair and a personality to match.
But she won’t be competing in the Olympics in Tokyo. U.S. track officials confirmed that Richardson would be left off the team this year after testing positive for marijuana.
During Olympics tryouts last month, Richardson had consumed cannabis recreationally while in Oregon upon learning about the death of her biological mother from a reporter. Distressed and in a moment of vulnerability, she consumed a cannabis-infused edible.
THC is not a performance enhancing substance and marijuana is not illegal in Oregon. It is, however, frowned upon by a segment of society. As a result of those frowns -- and for no other reason -- there is a rule against it in the Olympics.
President Joe Biden said, “The rules are the rules,” while shaking his head in empathy and wondering aloud if the rule needed to be changed in the future.
Many others in positions of power made similar statements filled with words like “bad judgment, heartbreak, accountability, pride, and — of course — the need to follow “rules.”
But this has more to do with racism than it does with rules.
Following her initial suspension, many people pointed out the cruel irony of a Black athlete being suspended for marijuana specifically, since Black people and people of colour have long been disproportionately targeted and criminalized in the immoral War on Drugs.
But Richardson isn’t the only Black athlete to face backlash this year. Also in June, hammer thrower Gwen Berry was criticized for protesting the national anthem during the U.S. Olympic trials.
While her protest didn't result in any punitive action, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said such demonstrations would be banned at the Olympics on the medals podium, on the field, and at the opening and closing ceremonies.
Racism against Black American athletes isn't isolated to this year's games, of course. During the 2016 Games in Rio, Simone Manuel became the first African-American to win a gold medal at an individual Olympic swimming event, but the San Jose Mercury News framed her win as "Olympics: Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American."
Gabby Douglas also received an overwhelming amount of scrutiny in 2016 for not smiling "enough" as she stood on the gold podium alongside her teammates. She was criticized for appearing "disconnected" and "blank and distant," as one sports columnist put it.
Douglas also received criticism because she didn't place her hand on her heart during the National Anthem. Additionally, the gold medalist's hair was called "unkempt," and was a racially coded topic of conversation at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.
Beyond the experiences of Richardson, Manuel, and Douglas, the Olympics governing body recently issued a ban on Soul Caps, a brand of swim caps designed to meet the hair needs of Black swimmers.
The swim caps are made to fit over and protect thick, curly, natural hair, as well as dreadlocks, weaves, extensions, and braids from chlorine damage.
"Between Sha'Carri Richardson and this, the Olympics really are sending quite the message to Black women," sports journalist Jemele Hill wrote on Twitter of the Soul Caps ban.
In devastating contrast to Sha’Carri Richardson, Michael Phelps, a White U.S. Olympics swimmer was caught on camera smoking a bong with cannabis in 2009. He later went on to compete in the World Championships, a similar event in terms of prestige.
Phelp’s defenders say that he never did test positive for marijuana but the reality is that he did acknowledge using the drug recreationally. Contrary to Richardson, Phelps used cannabis when its use was illegal in the U.S. He was essentially guilty of committing a crime, so why did he still get to represent the nation at the World Championships?
Because the U.S.A. Swimming committee decided to show him leniency.
Phelps did lose one key endorsement and some say that this was ample enough punishment — much worse than Richardson not being able to compete at the Olympics? Absolutely not.
For an athlete, competing at the Olympics is the quintessential summit. It is a much more prestigious honor than losing an endorsement. Being prohibited from competing in the Olympics is objectively a much harsher sentence.
The lack of leniency toward Richardson is a blatant example of how racism manifests itself in sports. It is a jarring double standard that few are willing to admit.
Richardson was dealt with much more harshly than Phelps for no other reason than the fact that she is Black.
When systemic racism is ignored and perpetuated, Black women athletes like Sha’Carri Richardson get suspended, disqualified, are used to perpetuate anti-Black racism and are enforced in a manner that keeps Black women on the sidelines.
At the Olympic trials, Richardson became the fastest woman in the world. There isn't a rule in the world that can undo that.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________Tasheal is a screenwriter and poet who believes creativity fuels true happiness. She is studying her first year of Film Production at UBC. Tasheal first discovered her passion for telling stories when she typed up old manuscripts for her dad at the ripe age of 9. Ever since, she has fell in love with the art of storytelling. Tasheal is an Aquarius who uses sarcasm as a defence mechanism and enjoys binge-watching Frasier on a regular basis. Find her on instagram at @tashealgill
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