Richardson shouldn’t have to apologize for being human

by Jireh Deng

Last month, Sha’Carri Richardson’s name was splashed across the sports pages as she became the sixth-fastest woman to run 100 meters, finishing in 10.72 seconds. Her bold hair, tattoos and unabashed love for her girlfriend made her a symbol for other 21-year-old queer women of color like myself, seeing her break social conventions and become a contender for a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

As swiftly as the praise came, so followed the backlash after Richardson tested positive for marijuana, putting her Tokyo Olympic dreams on hold. Richardson apologized in an interview with NBC’s “Today” show and later tweeted, “I am human.”

What’s heartbreaking is seeing Richardson explain to the public how marijuana was a way to cope with her emotional distress in the wake of her mother’s death. What’s enraging is the fact that marijuana is legal in Oregon, where the Olympic trials were held, and there’s been no indication that marijuana is a sports-enhancing drug. If anything, marijuana would decrease one’s athletic performance, because it impairs judgment and movement. The World Anti-Doping Agency has listed the substance as a danger to athletes for this reason, but penalizing athletes who need mental health support only exacerbates the problem.

A lot has changed since 2009, when photos leaked of Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps taking a hit on a bong; the laws on marijuana use are simply outdated. Thirty-six states have legalized medical marijuana, and in certain social contexts, consuming or smoking marijuana is as commonplace as taking a sip of wine.

The issue to focus on is more than just antiquated approaches to cannabis but also the way Black women athletes face intense scrutiny in the media. These women are put on a pedestal because of their athleticism and what they represent as symbols enduring sexism and racism, but we forget that they too are like us, experiencing moments of intense grief, private pain and occasional lapses in judgment.

Recently, Brianna McNeal, who had qualified for the 100-meter hurdles in Tokyo, was forced to come out publicly about having an abortion in order to challenge a five-year suspension by the Court of Arbitration for Sport for a drug test violation. In March, Naomi Osaka, ranked as one of the top players by the Woman’s Tennis Association, refused to take part in news conferences at the French Open for mental health reasons and was fined $15,000, leading her to withdraw from the tournament to rest.

Richardson has apologized and taken responsibility for her actions, vowing to never again fail a drug test, but she shouldn’t have to be sorry for anything.

In the world of high-level sports, where bodies are fine-tuned like machines cranked to their optimum levels, athletes are under immense stress. Officials apply the rules in a legalistic manner under the banner of equality, but it seems at times more like a witch hunt to prove fault and error. We hold athletes to impossible standards of perfection because they represent to us the best of the human spirit and work ethic. It can be easy to forget that life is messy and people aren’t always performing at their best.

Richardson’s gracious acceptance of the consequences and willingness to learn show the depth of her maturity and strengthen the example she sets for young people. She is human just like us, struggling through the loss of a loved one and trying to find ways to heal.

The good news is that, as the fastest woman in the U.S. today, Richardson should have more chances for gold at future Olympics.

Jireh Deng (she/they) is a 2021 summer Editorial Pages and Op-Ed intern at the Los Angeles Times.