In June 2021, the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced that Sha’Carri Richardson, the breakout star sprinter set to run in the Tokyo Olympics that month, had tested positive for marijuana and had accepted her one-month suspension. Eight months later in February 2022, Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva, the reigning Russian and European champion, tested positive for a banned heart medication. On February 14th, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled in favor of allowing the skater to continue competing.
The ruling faced immediate backlash from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. CEO Sarah Hirshland spoke for the committee when she said, “We are disappointed by the message this decision sends.” The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) also released a statement describing their “disappointment” with the Court of Arbitration for Sports, as their ruling was not in accordance with WADA code.
Valieva’s status as a minor files her under a different set of rules as a “protected person” under WADA code, which CAS cited as one of the “exceptional circumstances” that influenced their decision. According to WADA, “when a minor is involved in an anti-doping case, there is a requirement to investigate that athlete’s support personnel,” meaning her parents or coach would be held accountable for her violation. The International Skating Union was responsible for adjudicating a final decision on the case, dictating whether the team was disqualified, and if Valieva, who was favored to take the gold, would be able to keep her medals. The court had already ruled that if she was to win, there would not be a medal ceremony to honor her.
In a direct response to the announcement that Valieva would still be able to compete, Sha’Carri Richardson expressed her thoughts via Twitter: ”Can we get a solid answer on the difference of her situation and mines? [sic]…The only difference I see is I’m a black young lady.“
The exceptions made for Valieva’s case may or may not be valid, but it is without question that the exceptions made for her should have at least been considered for Richardson. CAS stated in its ruling that preventing the skater from competing would have caused “irreparable harm” – why was this grace not extended to Richardson?
IOC representative Mark Adams responded to accusations of bias by comparing the timelines of the two tests: “Valieva’s case remains under investigation; she will skate…but [if she wins] her results would be accompanied by an asterisk to signal her legal situation. In terms of Ms. Richardson’s case, she tested positive on June 19 , quite a way ahead of the [Tokyo] games. The results came in early order for USADA to deal with the case on time before the games.”
While the excuse seems valid considering all aspects of the timeline, there could be foul play. There was a major delay between Valieva’s test date and when the results were announced on February 8th. She took the test on December 25th, meaning the Swedish lab took over six weeks to report the findings. The Russian Anti-Doping Agency had apparently failed to ask the laboratory to fast-track Valieva’s sample—meaning the analysis was unable to be completed before the Olympics.
What has been excused as a simple mistake has a darker underpinning: Russia is currently banned from participating in international competition due to its state-sponsored doping efforts revealed in a WADA-sponsored investigation. According to USA Today, “Multiple investigations by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) revealed state-sponsored doping programs that ran from 2011 to 2015 and involved more than 1,000 athletes in at least 30 sports. It involved the subversion of anti-doping protocols in two Olympics, including swapping out dirty urine for clean samples through a hole in the wall during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.”
The “institutional conspiracy,” which occurred during both the 2012 and 2014 Olympics, was described by WADA investigator Richard McLaren as “a cover-up that evolved over the years from uncontrolled chaos to an institutionalized and disciplined medal-winning strategy and conspiracy.”
Despite Russia’s inability to have a formal presence at the Winter Olympics, Russian athletes are still permitted to compete under the “Russian Olympic Committee” if they are clean. In response to Valieva’s failed test, Hirshland spoke on Russia’s repeated doping offenses saying “this appears to be another chapter in the systemic and pervasive disregard for clean sport by Russia.”
While there are many stark contrasts between the two, the major difference between Valieva and Richardson’s cases is the media response. Valieva has managed to remain somewhat out of the spotlight despite the controversy. The majority of news media focuses on the committee’s decision, not the athlete herself. However, in Richardson’s case, she was demonized and criticized as a person, athlete, and role model. Richardson felt as though her report being posted “within a week” and her name and talent being “slaughtered to the people” is “all in the skin.”
The difference in news media coverage is clear. For example, The New York Times published an article about Valieva titled “Before a Disputed Drug Test, a Russian Figure Skater Had a Rapid Rise.” This headline places focus on the skater’s talent instead of her controversy and omits her name. The publication’s headline on Richardson reads “Sha’Carri Richardson, a Track Sensation, Tests Positive for Marijuana.” By not only mentioning her name but also the specific drug for which she tested positive, the Times article is one of many examples of Richardson’s case being magnified by the media.
Shortly after her suspension was announced, the track star made an appearance on The TODAY Show. She took responsibility for her failed test but also took the opportunity to shed more light on her story. After the Olympic trials, Richardson was facing astronomical pressure due to the new level of competition and “the world” suddenly watching her every move. She had also recently discovered that her mother had passed away via a reporter while being interviewed. “When you’re dealing with a pain [or] struggle you’ve never had to deal with before, who am I to tell you how to cope?” she said.
News outlets have generally avoided speaking about Valieva specifically, but Richardson was placed under a microscope. Even after sharing how she discovered her mother’s passing, Richardson’s emotional distress was only reported as the “excuse” for her controversy. She was not presented as a human who also experiences hardship and emotion, but rather as an athlete who simply failed to uphold perfection. The closest thing to sympathy she received was the widespread disappointment that she could not compete.
USADA chief executive Travis Tygart said, “The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels. Hopefully, her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions, despite the costly consequences of this one to her.”
Although Richardson was chastised for her drug use, utilizing marijuana to aid mental health is not completely unfounded. According to the American Psychological Association, a series of studies has found that marijuana has positive impacts relating to “clinical and anxiety-related symptoms.” Using cannabis as medicine for one’s mental or physical health is becoming increasingly common in the United States. The Marijuana Policy Project estimated that in 2018 over 2.8 million people were using marijuana for health benefits. Medical marijuana is now legalized in 39 states and Washington D.C., including Oregon, where the Olympic trials were held.
In a 2011 paper, WADA stated that cannabis “can be” performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines. Although there is evidence marijuana can help some athletes relax and focus, the drug also slows reaction times and decreases coordination, concentration, and endurance. The drug is listed on WADA’s list of prohibited substances, but it is not a definite performance-enhancing drug. In fact, several professional sports leagues have altered their rules and regulations relating to marijuana. The NFL limited their testing period to two weeks of training camp and reduced the penalty from suspension to a fine. Major League Baseball removed the drug from its list of banned substances in 2019, and the UFC “no longer penalizes athletes for marijuana use unless the athlete is found to have intentionally used it to enhance performance.”
However, beyond altering an athlete’s performance, another reason WADA lists for banning cannabinoids is to preserve the “spirit of the sport;” the “use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world.” Placing WADA’s claim of maintaining the integrity of competition into context, Valieva tested positive for Trimetazidine, a performance-enhancing drug that increases blood flow to heart and improves endurance. Despite her positive test occurring two months before the games, she still competed.
While the two cases have vastly different circumstances, the fact still remains that one Olympic athlete performed with a failed drug test when another did not get the chance to compete. Valieva ended up placing fourth and not receiving a medal, most likely to the IOC’s great relief. If she did place, the committee would be faced with the predicament of how to honor an athlete that competed with a positive test. Celebrating the world’s highest level of athletic achievement, it is the Olympics’ responsibility to maintain a level playing field for all participants. The talent and efforts of every Olympic athlete deserve to be honored. If, however, exceptions are valid, it is without a question that Richardson deserved at least a consideration of the same grace extended to Valieva.