When Canadian snowboarder Ross Rebagliati was stripped of his gold medal in the giant slalom at the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics after testing positive for marijuana, he became an overnight joke. "Unlike Clinton, you inhaled but didn't smoke," Jay Leno quipped to him on The Tonight Show, an extremely '90s one-liner referencing Rebagliati's claims that his positive result was owed to secondhand smoke.
But it was a few years later, in 2002, that Robin Williams really hit the nail on the head. "The only way [marijuana is] a performance-enhancing drug," the comedian said in Rebagliati's defense, "is if there's a big f--king Hershey bar at the end of the run."
Today, some 23 years after Rebagliati's humiliation, sprinting phenom Sha'Carri Richardson's Olympic dreams are now in jeopardy too. According to reports, the 21-year-old tested positive for THC, the main psychoactive in marijuana, at the U.S. Track and Field trials in Eugene, Oregon, last month, where her 10.86-second, first-place finish in the 100-meter dash had made her a favorite for the Tokyo gold. But Richardson's disqualification is no laughing matter, and it's a shame that such pointless rules are still in place. She deserves to run.
Aside from returning Olympians Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky, there was likely no more highly-anticipated American athlete heading to Tokyo than Richardson. A native of South Dallas, Richardson's fiery orange hair, un-aerodynamic eyelashes, and acrylic Flo-Jo nails are outmatched only by her personality, which is a charismatic mix of cocksure and God-fearing. "She rarely bobs past a camera without taking the opportunity to wink, smile, snarl, point, flash a peace sign, or blow a kiss," The Washington Post admired. Her response to winning the 100 meters and becoming a "f--king Olympian" went viral after she told the reporter, "I want the world to know I'm that girl."
But when appearing on the Today show on Friday to respond to the news of her disqualification from the Olympic 100 meters, Richardson struggled to hold back her tears. She stressed to viewers, though, that she was not looking to make any excuses: "I want to take responsibility for my actions," she said.
Richardson also alluded to coping with the death of her biological mother during the trials, a fact she had kept private until revealing it to a blindsided NBC reporter during her post-race interview. "Being in that position of my life and finding out something like that — something that I would say has impacted my life positively and negatively in my life when it comes to dealing with the relationship with my mother — that was definitely a heavy topic on me," Richardson explained to Today. "To have to go out into the world and put on a face. Who am I to tell you how to cope?"
Richardson would be the last person to say that an exception should be made for her. Addressing the possibility that U.S. Track and Field might still send her to Tokyo to run in the 4x100 meter relay, even if she's disqualified from the individual race, she said simply, "I'm grateful, but if not, I'm just going to focus on myself." Still, even if rules are rules, the injustice of the fastest woman in America not being allowed to run in the Olympics because she used a drug that was legal for her to consume in Oregon is hard to get past. And it raises the obvious question of why marijuana is a banned substance in the first place.
When Rebagliati was stripped of his gold in 1998, the Olympics eventually reinstated his medal after realizing that marijuana technically wasn't on their banned substance list at the time. The Olympics amended that oversight by adding marijuana to the list in 1999, the same year the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was created to help establish consistency for banned substances worldwide. In 2013, WADA raised its threshold for a disqualifying positive THC test from 15 nanograms per milliliter of urine to 150 ng/ml, to account for the fact that the substance is only supposed to be banned during the actual period of competition.
Athletes, though, have long protested that marijuana isn't a performance-enhancing drug and that users don't have an unfair advantage over their competition. The decision to ban athletes from using pot instead seems largely to be a moral or image-related policy: The International Olympic Committee originally banned cannabinoids over "their illegality, and because they violate the 'spirit of sport,'" according to USA Today. But attitudes have changed toward the drug since the 1990s. Recreational use of marijuana is now legal in 18 states and D.C., as well as in Canada, where WADA is based.
"I am not sure if the IOC was looking at it from a social standpoint or because it was against the law, but I think now the responsible thing to do is look at it from a non-ideological standpoint and realize the benefits," Rebagliati, who now works in the cannabis industry, told Reuters in 2018. Or, to quote Sports Illustrated, "If pot made a person run faster, Woody Harrelson would be Usain Bolt … How about a little common sense here?"
As Sha'Carri Richardson told Today, "I know what I did, and what I'm not supposed to do. I know what I'm not allowed to do, and I still made that decision." Even so, the fact that she won't be allowed to compete in her marquee race at the Olympics because she consumed marijuana before the biggest event of her life, while grieving her mother — when taking a shot of tequila, which is not a WADA-banned substance, would theoretically have been permitted — is absurd.
Richardson deserved better, and the only joke is the rules.