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I Mean This With Love: Y’all Are Misreading The Sha’Carri Richardson Situation

Photo: carririchardson_ / Instagram
sha’carri richardson

On June 19th, 2021, Sha’Carri Richardson ran into our hearts as she emphatically crossed the line to qualify for the Olympic games. What drew us to her was her bravado, her unabashed confidence, and the way she reveled and exalted in HER Blackness — a Blackness that was not shrouded in the kind of respectability that assuages white comfort, but a Blackness that stood to challenge it.

As she bounced down the track, we saw a person who was brash but also self-assured and undeniably confident. We saw something endearing and familiar with her ability to be unapologetically her. Her hair, her nails, her attitude, her mere existence, it all felt like beautiful defiance — the kind of defiance that’s all too often implicitly required in order to exist in this world while Black.

So it is understandable when we found out that on July 1st, 2021 that she had been banned for weed consumption, that so many viewed it as yet another example of a Black body being unfairly targeted and punished.

The injury, a minor drug offense, felt triflingly small: an affront to her athletic brilliance.

It felt like yet another way of the world holding a Black person to an impossibly high standard, that the punishment was uniquely unfair and prejudicial. And in a world where these things are so often the case, it is understandable why that conclusion was drawn.

However, this isn’t one of those instances.

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You see, Sha’Carri Richardson was not banned due to a draconian US-created rule that targets and criminalizes Blackness in the way that our War on Drugs has for decades. Ms. Richardson was banned due to an international rule set by the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, to which all countries must adhere in order to participate in international competitions, including the Olympic games.

As a signatory to WADA, all US Olympic sports must adhere to the rules set by WADA. Not doing so could jeopardize a federation’s standing in international competition and at worst, could result in a nation being banned.

Calls to allow Sha’Carri to compete in effect are asking the US to lobby for an exemption to the international anti-doping rules because one of our star athletes was adversely affected — that it rendered an outcome that we didn’t like. 

It is asking the US to use its position of geopolitical importance and influence to force that an exemption be issued to serve our own immediate interests. That sort of action would not be fair to the global sports community and if another country attempted to influence that sort of immediate exemption, we, the US, would rightly view such a move as unjust and corrupt.

This does not make the pain that we feel any less significant, nor does it mean that our collective frustrations are not valid. But we have to be careful not to allow those frustrations to lead us to conclusions that are not accurate.

Despite what it appears to be, this is not an example of a Black body being targeted and unfairly punished even though this case appears to have all of the hallmarks of such an occurrence. You have a Black woman, who ran incredibly fast, who soon afterward was tested and was then found to have THC in her system.

It is easy to look at the situation and assume that she was targeted because of her Blackness, because she ran too fast and that she was punished by a rule that was explicitly designed to penalize Black bodies.

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It is truly an unfair burden to have to decipher the intents and impacts of a world that often privileges our failures over our successes. So with this unfair burden, it is understandable that we sometimes may misinterpret what we see and may misattribute the cause as an example of a racist world enacting a racist impact.

The truth is that Ms. Richardson wasn’t unfairly targeted for testing as some have suggested as the top three finishers at the US Olympic trials are always immediately tested after their races.

And the rule that resulted in the ban wasn’t created within the context of the US and its history of racialized drug policy.

Simply put, Ms. Richardson was not treated any differently under the system as it was designed. And that system was not designed to explicitly target and penalize Blackness in a way that so many of our systems and processes are.

Rather, Ms. Richardson happened to suffer the consequence of a perhaps heavy-handed rule at the most inopportune time. Had she tested positive for THC a month or two earlier as her compatriot Kahmari Montgomery had, the world would not be discussing this issue at all as she would have completed her one-month ban, would have run at the trials without issue, and would be headed to Tokyo.

Sha’Carri ran incredibly fast at trials, however, due to an international rule, those results will not be able to stand.

That doesn’t mean that the rule shouldn’t be amended after the games, but requesting a special exemption be granted because our star athlete was issued a ban would set a really bad precedent for anti-doping policy governance moving forward.

Now whether the ban should have been issued and whether she could have represented Team USA on the 4x100m relay are two different questions, as her ban would be over in time for the 4x100m relay in Tokyo.

Relay selection is up to each federation so in theory USATF could have placed her on the relay. So is it fair that that relay slot has gone to the 7th placer, Aleia Hobbs, who, like Richardson, is a hard-working, incredibly talented Black woman athlete who has been through her own struggles and triumphs, or should USATF have granted that slot to Sha’Carri? I believe that is an open question.

At the end of the day, our hearts break due to the circumstance — it is sh*tty all the way around. However, the circumstance is just a bad confluence of factors rather than someone being the victim of a structurally racist process.

Ms. Richardson, our Sha’Carri, unfortunately, suffered tremendous loss and the fact that she has been disciplined for an understandable reaction to trauma is heartbreaking. It feels like cruel and unusual punishment.

She is deserving of grace and understanding. But that grace and understanding do not mean that we should view this situation as something that it’s not.

Editor’s Note: For context, I am an elite track and field athlete who has raced internationally and who has been subject to WADA drug testing in the past, so I am familiar with the drug testing rules and process. To give you an indication of how rigid the rules are, we are responsible for everything that is in our bodies. So even if I took protein powder from a company that isn’t careful with their processing and that protein powder had some contamination in it, I would be responsible if that substance appeared on a drug test. Even if all of the ingredients that were labeled were all safe if I took a contaminated batch and I tested positive, I would be liable and I would likely be banned (unless I was able to successfully appeal). Batch contamination is very unlikely but this just provides some insight into how strict the anti-doping rules are.

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Russell Dinkins is a writer who explores race, class, environment, society, and their intersections. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.