Has the Olympics Shown Double Standards?

Stephen Andrews
17 Feb 2022

The U.S. athlete Sha'Carri Richardson has questioned the decision to allow a Russian skater to participate in this month's winter games in Beijing despite having tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing drug. Richardson was suspended from the 2021 summer Olympics following a positive marijuana test.

Last year's suspension of Sha'Carri Richardson sparked a global debate over whether the exclusion policy on Olympians using cannabis should be repealed. The case even initiated a scientific appraisal of the policy by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). 

The sprinter candidly contested why she faced serious consequences when Russian skater Kamila Valieva who helped her country bring the gold in one race, and placed fourth in an individual event, was permitted to compete after testing positive for a banned substance. 

Richardson, who couldn't run in the Tokyo Olympics because of a positive marijuana test, tweeted Monday asking for an explanation of the difference between Valieva's case and hers. 

"Can we get a solid answer on the difference of her situation and mines? My mother died and I can't run and was also favored to place top 3. The only difference I see is I'm a black young lady," she said on Twitter.

As records show, historically, black people have been discriminated against a great deal more when it comes to drugs. Therefore, Richardson asks a legitimate question. The sprinter also pointed to the fact that cannabis is "not a performance-enhancing drug."

Valieva was found to have used trimetazidine, which helps to increase exercise duration and improve cardiac performance, both of which could have helped her land the first quadruple jump by a woman in an Olympic event this month.

There are some differences in the cases that need to be considered, however.

First, Richardson's suspension was a decision made by the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), which has complied with international athletics rules and has expressed sympathy for the situation but stuck to a view that there wasn't another way but to suspend. 

Valieva was temporarily suspended by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (RUSADA) after returning positive tests on doping. RUSADA later lifted the suspension. They were then challenged by WADA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the International Skating Union (ISU). 

The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which is the international body that resolves Olympic disputes, released a statement that said the Russian skater was allowed to continue being part of the competition. Some penalties were imposed, however. For example, she would have collected her medal without a ceremony had she won a medal in the individual skating event Tuesday. 

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee criticized CAS's clearance for the skater, saying it was denying athletes the right "to know they are competing on a level playing field."

On the other hand, CAS noted that the decision is owed to the fact that the 15-year-old skater is a minor and has a "protected person" status, therefore, is subject to different standards under WADA code. 

IOC also defended, denying Richardson's accusation of double standards over Valieva. An IOC spokesperson said, "there is nothing in common between these two cases."

In a phone interview, Richard Pound, the first president of WADA, told Marijuana Moment that "certainly, in the Olympics, there's not a racial bias in anything that we do."

He commented on the harsh sanction Richardson received last year, saying he wasn't clear why regulators "didn't just say, 'sorry, about your mother, but for god's sake, be careful with this stuff because it's still on the list and you're exposing yourself to the possible sanctions" rather than outright remove her from the games. 

The grabbing attention the cases have received illustrates how the connective tissue between drugs and sports has become a broader debate, however.

Richardson said last year that she would feel "blessed and proud" if her case helped bring a policy change for other athletes. In a rare comment on the topic, even President Joe Biden said there are questions to be answered whether cannabis ban should "remain the rules."

Stephen Andrews