Leah Falland was on her way to the 2021 Olympics in the Steeplechase. She had followed defending Olympic medalist Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs and the trio had broken away from the pack. Just two more laps around the track at Hayward field in Eugene, Oregon and Falland would be an Olympian. Realizing the Olympic dream would be the culmination of four years of hard work after returning from two broken bones in her feet, a ruptured plantar fascia, a broken shin, a frayed labrum in her hip, a broken pubic bone, and anemia. But all that hard work turned out to be for nought. Her toe brushed a barrier as she cleared the hurdle and she crashed awkwardly to the track. Falland clambered to her feet and ran on but finished out of the top three, collapsing to the track in tears. While Coburn, Frerichs, and Val Constien will go on to be forever known as Olympians, Leah Falland will return home to fade into anonymity. It certainly doesn’t seem fair.
I spent a lot of time time watching the Olympic trials this year including most of the track and field events and a fair amount of swimming. There was a lot of heartbreak out there. There was 800M phenom Donavan Brazier who was expected to not only make the Olympic team but was a heavy favorite to win gold in Tokyo. He fell apart completely in his final. Madyson Cox missed making the Olympic team for swimming in the 200M IM by .02 (that’s two hundreths) of a second. Time and again athletes missed the team by split seconds. For others, their races ended before it started. Aleia Hobbs’ was disqualified from the women’s 100M semi-final for an almost imperceptible false start. Because of the harsh once-and-done false start rules put in place by the IAAF Congress in 2009, she sat in a corner and sobbed her Olympic dreams away while her competitors sprinted on.
Hobbs’ success or failure on the start line in the 100M should have been academic. That event is currently owned by Sha’Carri Richardson. The flamboyant 21 year-old has been leaving 100M runners wallowing in her wake collegiately and professionally since 2017. Known for her wild hair, large entourage, and positively amazing 100M splits, she was the odds-on favorite at both the US Olympic trials, and to win the gold in Tokyo. Gold in the 100M is something not done by an American women since Gail Devers did it in 1996. At the trials Richardson would not disappoint on the track. After her typical slow start, Sha’Carri powered past the competition to win the final.
Sadly, the Sha’Carri Richardson Olympic Trials story doesn’t end there. She would go on to test positive for THC at a post-race drug test. THC, the chemical substance found in marijuana, is banned in competition by WADA/USADA. The positive test earned the sprinter a mandatory one month suspension from competition. While this suspension ends just days before the start of the 100M event in Tokyo, Richardson will not be there. The positive test for THC also annulled her results at the trials meaning she did not qualify for the Olympics.
Enter the hue and cry of the media and celebrities. Headline after headline has espoused that “Marijuana doesn’t enhance performance. Why does it matter?”. Politicians like New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others have called the USADA marijuana ban racist. (I’m really not sure why that would be.) Petitions have begun circulating the internet to let Sha’Carri run in Tokyo.
I’m sorry but this is all Miss Richardson’s own doing. In fact, Sha’Carri herself has said so. “I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do … and I still made that decision,” Richardson said. “I’m not making an excuse or looking for empathy in my case.” In her statement, the sprinter went on to explain that she chose to use marijuana because of a heavy interview about the death of her biological mother.
Let’s break this all down a bit starting with the reporter asking, quite frankly, really stupid questions. So, you have an interview with a woman (a girl really), who has the chance at doing something no American has done since 1996. She is lightning fast! Yes, she is gay, yes she is flamboyant, and yes she has had tragedy in her life. Why not ask about her racing, training, ability, talent? Oh . . I know the answer. The Olympics just isn’t the same without tugging at the heart strings of the fans so you gotta get the sob story. Maybe it’s time to ban reporters from the trials and games.
To be clear, I’m not making excuses for Miss Richardson but whomever went down this line of questioning was an idiot. That said, there were stories of family and personal tragedy all over the Olympics trials with many athletes dealing with the death of close family and friends. Those athletes did not turn to cannabis for help.
Part of being an athlete in any sport governed by USADA is knowing and abiding by the rules whether you agree with them or not. The biggest rule is to abide by and avoid the list of banned substances and it is a long list. There are a lot of items on the list that most humans use on a daily basis. Drugs that help with allergies, asthma, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, depression, hormonal imbalances, and pain among other things. Guess what? If you aspire to compete on the world stage you are out of luck and just need to suck it up and deal with it minus the helpful substances. Every athlete from the biggest weightlifter to the tiniest gymnast knows this and lives with it. Whether or not marijuana is or isn’t a performance enhancing drug isn’t important. It’s clearly and explicitly on the list. For reference, caffeine is often debated and has made appearances on the banned list. That would be your morning coffee folks. If it is there, you gotta give it up if you want to compete. Dems da rules and everyone plays by them. We can’t start making exceptions because an athlete is also black and/or gay and/or otherwise has a compelling story.
It is important to note that use of marijuana by athletes is not forbidden outside of competition. (Law enforcement, depending on location, may beg to differ.) What is prohibited is the use of marijuana during competition. This is what Miss Richardson knowingly did to cope with stress. If we want to quickly address the racism thing, remember when Micheal Phelps was under the microscope for smoking weed? He received a three month suspension and loss of major sponsorship for a picture of him with a joint taken weeks after the 2008 Olympics. He never tested positive for THC or any other banned substance in a competition but the same media that was quick to rush to the salvation of Miss Richardson were ready to roast Phelps on a spit over a picture. Remember: Phelps violated no rules of competition but received a 3 month suspension anyway and everyone was all good with that.
With this day in age of marijuana becoming legalized across the country and world, one could ask “Why is marijuana on the list?” Alcohol isn’t. Tobacco isn’t. Heck, the winter games feature curling. That’s the sport where Canadians and other cold people slide rocks down the ice while furiously mopping the ice and emptying pitchers of LaBatt’s and Molson. Of course, they don’t show that part in the games but how else do you think people get through nine months of winter?
Aside from easing anxiety prior to an event, science has shown that any other benefits of cannabis to a competitor are somewhat nebulous at best. According to USADA and WADA: To be on the list, a substance must meet at least two of the following criteria: the substance has to be considered a performance enhancer; it must potentially pose a health risk to athletes; and its use must violate the “spirit of sport,” which the agency’s 2021 code defines as “the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind,” adding that it reflects the values of sports, such as character, teamwork and “fun and joy.”
I agree with USADA on this one. By definition, tobacco and alcohol should be listed as well, but in most cases these are self-regulating. I promise there aren’t a lot of top-sprinters out there using much alcohol and virtually none using tobacco. (Again, let’s leave curling out of this.) One would think a top-sprinter wouldn’t be choosing to smoke weed either though it is unclear in what form Richardson chose to partake. Additionally, for parents of up-and-coming athletes, do you really want your child looking up to professional athletes who smoke dope?
I know, the NFL and the other professional ball sports don’t really crack down on weed use. (Although sometimes they do.) The NFL also treats their athletes like a bunch of giant sissies and let the player’s union determine what testing can be done and when. Did you know the NFL barely tests, or enforces their own rules on substances like Human Growth Hormone (HGH)? Do we think it’s a miracle of human evolution that NFL players keep getting bigger, faster, and stronger? Please spare me the NFL doper’s league excuses. If the NFL (or MLB, or NBA) ever came under the rules of USADA or WADA there probably wouldn’t be a recognizable name left in the league. We shouldn’t be using any of the major American ball sports as any sort of litmus test for doping enforcement. Sticking your head in the sand and pretending it isn’t happening doesn’t mean these sports are clean.
Let’s go back to those well-meaning petitions to get Sha’Carri into the Olympics. While it seems like a great human action to take, it isn’t going to solve anything. She broke the rules. She knows she broke the rules and she admitted to breaking the rules. As soon as USADA, USATF, and the Olympic Committee cave on Miss Richardson’s case because of well-meaning public opinion, they would have to revisit dozens of other cases that are far less cut and dried. Surprise! There are other athletes of all races and genders left out of international competition because of these same rules.
- 200M medalist suspended
- Every Russian athlete . . whether they doped or not.
- Brianna McNeal: Olympic medalist banned because she missed a drug test (read the story).
- There are dozens of other cases examples
If we want to really discuss something unfair from the Track and Field Olympic trials, let’s go back and talk about Aleia Hobbs for a moment. She was not the only athlete disqualified for a false start, and many other athletes probably did not have the race they were capable of courtesy of the notoriously over-sensitive starting equipment at the the trials. Time and again athletes were told to stand or called back to the blocks due to electronically detected false starts. Upon review, there was no perceptible movement by anyone on almost any of these. Meanwhile temperatures and tempers soared with each restart. Did Hobbs really false start or was her false start prompted by nervousness over shaky equipment? Perhaps if she’d have had a sip of cannabis tea prior to the race her nerves would have been calmed enough to not false start but she didn’t because that would be against the rules.
If we are going to have petitions for athletes we feel sorry for, perhaps we can circulate a petition for Leah Falland. Clearly she, along with Coburn and Frerichs were the class of the 3000M steeple chase field. Had her toe not brushed the hurdle causing her to fall it was clear to all watching that she was going to be an Olympian. But she fell and she isn’t. She’ll watch the games in Tokyo on TV like the rest of us. After overcoming all of those injuries and working so hard it doesn’t seem fair but that is the way the Olympic trials work. They don’t bend the rules or results because of a big personal story.
A few weeks from now in Tokyo, someone very fast will win the women’s 100M sprint. Whomever that is will have followed all the rules set forth by WADA and their country’s governing body for track and field. It would be a bitter pill for that person to swallow to finish runner-up to someone held to a different standard because of the emotional plea of the public. No matter how trivial or anitquated they seem, Sha’Carri Richardson did not follow the rules that she and all the other athletes agreed to before the start of the Olympic trials. To her great credit, she doesn’t deny that and owns it. The good news is, she is only 21 and in three years she can take her lesson learned and try again. I hope to see her in the blocks in Paris because the girl can flat out fly!