25 Years Ago, Sha’Carri Richardson Would Have Been An Olympic Superstar

In a hazy, stuck-to-the-couch state, I think I can recall giggling that this was the exact opposite of ‘performance enhancement’


A quarter-century ago, the Olympic hype machine would have been primed for full hero worship of Sha’Carri Richardson. A Wheaties box would be waiting. Wholesome sponsors salivating. Here was an American Olympian with all the trappings: her looks, her story, her astonishing speed. A made-for-primetime star in the premier event of the Games, the 100-meter dash. She would have been a centerpiece of NBC’s always hyperbolic coverage. 

Back then, the specter of doping was as ugly and corrupting as ever. However, although pot was illegal at the federal level and in all 50 states, it was not yet on the list of banned substances — for the simplest of reasons: Marijuana is not, and never has been, a performance-enhancing drug. Still, the social stigma against it was strong, and mainstream acceptance of weed remained decades away. But the notion of pot being used to cheat at sports? Please, that was ridiculous. 

Except, as is so often the case at the intersection of drugs and politics, ridiculousness soon ruled. In late 1997, international governing bodies began testing for marijuana. In mid-1998, U.S. Olympic sport landed on its first pot sacrifice. His name is Gary Hall Jr., 10-time Olympic medalist, 2 of them individual gold in the 50-meter freestyle, swimming’s version of the 100-meter dash — the marquee race to determine the fastest human alive. 

In the decades since Hall tested positive for pot, there hasn’t been a single American Olympic athlete to have publicly faced a ban for marijuana. Not until Sha’Carri Richardson was thrown off the U.S. Olympic Team last week. The outcries of support for Richardson stand in sharp contrast to the treatment Hall received back then for his “offense.” 

Like Gary, I was an Olympic swimmer at the 1996 Atlanta Games. While he was representing Team USA as one of the greatest sprinters in history, I was a butterflier for Team Canada. Elite swimming is a small community; he and I have been friends for many years. We caught up this week about the fiasco surrounding Sha’Carri. As he notes, they share a “dubious honor.” 

“At the very least,” he said, “they should be updating their policies to reflect the times. There’s not a doctor out there who’s ever been able to make a convincing argument that marijuana is performance-enhancing. Shouldn’t their focus be on catching the cheaters? Which, by the way, they’re doing a terrible job at.” 

The “they” in question is the United States Anti-Doping Agency. As Hall notes, the USADA has long proven to be awful at its job. When it comes to catching dopers, the agency is mostly a toothless paper tiger. The coming Tokyo Olympics promise to be filthy. And not in the positive sense, as one might describe a major league pitcher’s stuff. These 2021 Games are going to be filthy with doping. Athletes across the world went almost an entire year with little to no random drug testing. A global pandemic shutdown tends to hinder surprise tests, after all. While countless competitors searched for safe places to train, plenty of others recognized a golden opportunity to fill their veins with anything that might make them go faster, higher, stronger. Yet, even when all resources are being deployed, anti-doping agencies are dismal at catching bad actors in sport. To wit: Does anyone still believe that never failing a drug test is proof of innocence? 

The piss testers will always be a few steps behind the dopers. The search for creative ways to cheat is endless. Whether it’s rogue coaches and athletes experimenting with the latest designer drugs or state-sanctioned operations where gaining an illegal edge is institutionalized policy, the target is forever elusive. However, it’s always been relatively easy to test for marijuana. Pot shows up in the urine in anywhere from 3 to 30 days. It does nothing to improve your athletic performance, but it sure knows how to linger in the body. Which makes marijuana a convenient substance to weaponize and deploy when needed. 

When Gary Hall Jr. learned that he’d tested positive for pot on July 1, 1998, he also learned of another test. Evidently, the drug testers at the Atlanta Games two years prior had also been testing for marijuana. It just wasn’t sanctioned yet. Because, again, we’re talking about a substance that has nothing to do with performance. This begs the question of why athletic organizations were testing for it at all. Perhaps because they sometimes confuse themselves with the morality police? 

Hall was informed that his ’98 test was actually his “second offense.” He was told that he, along with more than a dozen American Olympians (including two other swimmers) had tested positive for marijuana at the ’96 Games. He was the only one named — or sanctioned — in any public manner. Just as Sha’Carri Richardson is the only track and field athlete to be named and banned from the U.S. Olympic team this summer. For marijuana. 

Full disclosure: Gary and those other never-named U.S. athletes were not the only ones smoking pot in 1996. I can personally attest to getting high in Atlanta’s Olympic Village with competitors from multiple nations. In a hazy, stuck-to-the-couch state, I think I can recall giggling that this was the exact opposite of “performance enhancement.” We were gloriously useless, indulging for the same reason as millions of others: to help quiet a racing mind. The competition was over. The tide was rolling out after achieving a lifetime dream. It helped. Yes, it was illegal in the state of Georgia. And, okay, smoking dope might have exhibited poor judgment, given the shame and embarrassment that would have resulted had we been caught. I just count myself lucky to have come of age in the last era before camera phones. (Unlike that unfortunate episode with Michael Phelps, who was pictured hitting a bong a few months after his eight-gold triumph in 2008. And to clarify: He never tested positive for pot. Some asshole just took a photo of him at a house party and leaked it.)  

Much has been made of the fact that Richardson tested positive in Oregon — the first of 18 states and counting to legalize marijuana. She was kicked off the Olympic team for using something perfectly legal where it was consumed. In an op-ed, the Washington Post argued that this was, in part, a matter of federal versus states’ rights. The United States Anti-Doping Agency is a federally funded organization and hence must operate under federal law, where marijuana remains an illegal substance. 

Okay, yes.… But before we spin this into a Hamiltonian debate on Federalism, let’s go back to 1996 for a moment, when marijuana was not only illegal at the federal level but in all 50 states. While Sha’Carri Richardson finds herself being defended by marijuana advocates as a virtual folk hero, Gary Hall Jr. faced a very different reception.  

“I lost all my sponsors,” he recalls. “Speedo called that day. The media must have been notified before I was, because it was in the papers that morning. I had hate mail, so many people reaching out to say I was a horrible person, an awful role model. Today, we’re dealing with such a different cultural perception. I live in L.A. I cannot go to any social function without seeing someone openly smoking weed.” 

Hall believes he was targeted by FINA (swimming’s governing body) and the International Olympic Committee for taking a vocal stance in favor of an athlete’s union and greater professionalism in swimming. “I always felt it was retribution,” he says. “They wanted me out, for whatever reason, and they used marijuana to do it.” 

Alas, to the chagrin of certain nameless, once-powerful people in the sport, they failed. At the next two Olympics, in Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, Hall won back-to-back Olympic gold in the 50-meter freestyle. He also quit smoking pot for over a decade, until the end of his storied competitive career in the pool. 

Future gold and cold-served revenge may yet arrive for Sha’Carri Richardson. She’s only 21 years old, the same age that Hall was in 1996. However, she’s already lost plenty. There will be no Wheaties box, no sponsorships from companies that rely on a squeaky-clean image, despite whatever corporate malfeasance occurs behind their boardroom doors. And just how does one value the worth of a billion eyeballs watching you run faster than any woman on earth, anyway? Olympic careers tend to be short, often beset by injuries and the brutal demands of training; there is no guarantee she’ll be back, no matter how young she may be now. 

So, if Hall’s marijuana prosecution was the result of power-politics looking to silence a critic of the pseudo-amateur status quo, then what’s behind Richardson’s ban? Because, rest assured, these are not the only two American athletes to test positive for marijuana over the past two and a half decades. 

“Why her?” he asks. “They don’t want her to be the next star of her sport. That’s abundantly clear. You think she’s the only track athlete to smoke marijuana?” 

On June 24, the Irish Times published a piece that speculated on one possible reason: the company she keeps on the track. The story came out after Richardson electrified at the U.S. Trials in Portland, winning the 100 meters in 10.86 (a time that stamped her as a favorite for gold in Tokyo), but a week before her positive test for pot was released to the media. The piece pointed to her coach, Dennis Mitchell, and one of her training partners, Justin Gatlin. These two names might not mean much to you if you’re not a consistent follower of the Olympics. However, if you’re a fan of the Games, this is likely what comes first to mind: They’re cheaters. 

Both Richardson’s coach and a training partner are unquestioned, multiple-offense former dopers. As the Irish Times expressed, without subtlety, “when the sports doping Hall of Fame is finally built, Mitchell deserves his own display.” As for Justin Gatlin, the 2004 Olympic champ in the 100-meters has served two separate bans for doping, including being banished from the sport from 2006 to 2010. 

So who is responsible for connecting such a rising talent with these tainted bedfellows? That would be Nike. Gatekeepers of the sports-industrial complex, rulers of track and field, and by far the biggest employer in the state of Oregon — where marijuana is legal and where Sha’Carri Richardson won the U.S. Trials with such speed and flare that she seemed destined for Olympic superstardom. 

Then came that positive test for marijuana. Her punishment: A 30-day ban, a penalty so short that it almost proves in itself just how unthreatening pot is considered by doping authorities. Most months are forgettable enough. Any other month, and it would be the lightest of slaps on the wrist, but this ban happens to coincide with what was set to be the most important event of her life. For Olympians, time can be mind-bendingly relative. You can toil for years in anonymity, but on a certain day in a certain summer, you need less than 11 seconds to emerge as a global star. 

To be clear: Sha’Carri Richardson should not be held accountable for the past infractions of her training circle. Nor should she be punished for following the training recommendations of Nike overlords. This is one of the fastest human beings on earth, and she’s earned the right to compete at the Tokyo Games. 

But if you think this is all because of pot, you must be high.    ❖ 


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