Black Women in Sports Deserve Better

Sha’Carri Richardson has officially been left off the U.S. Track and Field roster for Tokyo.

Sha'Carri Richardson
Photo: Getty Images

With her flame orange hair and blistering speed, sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson appeared poised for a star turn at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Instead, she was officially left off the roster for the U.S. Track and Field team that will compete later this month at the Games.

In June, Richardson posted a 10.86 second time, making her America's fastest woman and securing her spot in the women's 100-meter individual race. But last week, news broke that she was suspended for 30 days after testing positive for THC, the primary psychoactive compound found in marijuana. The sanction left room for her to possibly compete in the 4x100 relay via USA Track & Field's (USATF) two discretionary picks. But they opted against selecting her, despite a social media outcry going all the way up to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez to #LetHerRun.

The USATF expressed sympathy for Richardson's "extenuating circumstances" and admitted that the rule regarding THC needs to be reevaluated, but maintained that making an exception "would be detrimental to the integrity of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field if USATF amended its policies following competition, only weeks before the Olympic Games."

The extenuating circumstances in question stem from Richardson's admission during a Today Show interview that she ingested the drug after being blindsided by a reporter with news that her biological mother had died. "In some type of way, I was just trying to hide my pain," she said.

It was a costly mistake which has made her a defendant in the court of public opinion.

As President Biden said when weighing in, "The rules are the rules. Whether they should remain the rules is a different issue, but the rules are the rules.'' United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is a signatory to the World Anti-Doping Agency's (WADA) Code whose rules are the standard for the Olympics and which lists THC as a prohibited substance. There is no conclusive research to show that marijuana use has any performance enhancing effects. However, WADA contends that it poses a risk to athlete health and violates the vague 'spirit of sport' criterion. This is disturbing because the case against marijuana is heavily based on racist rhetoric which has led to mass incarcerations disproportionately affecting communities of color.

Richardson used the drug in Oregon, site of the Olympic trials and one of 18 states where the drug is approved for recreational use. But American policies have no bearing on an international sports event. Even the star sprinter herself has acknowledged her culpability.

However, the outrage and groundswell of support for Richardson is a direct response to a culture in which Black women are traditionally not allowed grace or room for error afforded their white counterparts. This is particularly maddening because many of the rules that govern sport were created with complete disregard for the unique experiences of Black women. Instead they've had to contort themselves to fit within a system that centers whiteness as a default.

How else do you explain the language used by The International Swimming Federation (FINA) in their denial of an application made by British Black-owned brand Soul Cap for a swimming cap specially made to protect afro-textured hair? The international federation recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to administer international competitions in water sports reportedly told the company that their product did not follow "the natural form of the head." And despite the voluminous nature of natural Black hair, to their "best knowledge, the athletes competing at the International events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration"

The decision is now under review almost certainly due to the backlash which awakened their "understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation."

Also in June, a story came out about Brianna McNeal, 2016 Olympic champion in the 100-meter hurdles, who received a five-year ban after being accused of tampering with the anti-doping process. She changed the date of a medical procedure (an abortion), on official documentation, mistakenly believing that her doctor had erred. McNeal recently revealed details of the abortion that led to a missed mandatory drug test, citing a traumatic and stressful time, in an effort to fight the penalty and clear her name.

McNeal told the New York Times that investigators from World Athletics reprimanded her for electing to see a spiritual adviser rather than a psychiatrist for her depression after the abortion. In the Black community, faith is often used as therapy. In fact, seeking mental health care is stigmatized. This is historically rooted in systemic oppression and general distrust of a medical establishment that has misdiagnosed African Americans at higher rates than white patients and used Black bodies in service of 'medical advancement.'

It is dehumanizing to be blocked from competing for merely existing.

World Athletics also deemed Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi of Namibia ineligible from the 400-meter race for having a naturally high testosterone level. Neither of the athletes, nor their families, or Namibian officials were aware of their condition prior to testing. A 2018 ruling by the governing body for athletics mandates that to ensure fair competition, women with high natural testosterone levels must take medication to reduce them to compete in middle-distance races. South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya's unwillingness to alter her physiology has kept her embroiled in legal challenges and off the track.

It is utterly demeaning to be told that your features do not meet the standard of what is considered "normal." It's downright ludicrous to have your choice of counsel during crushing despair questioned. It is dehumanizing to be blocked from competing for merely existing. What we have seen unfold in the span of a week is merely a sliver of the reality facing Black women in sport, where an onslaught of scrutiny must be balanced with keeping your composure under pressure lest you be branded a malcontent. It's a world in which you are reviled for appearing too masculine and asked to shrink yourself to eliminate the "unfair advantage" over the rest of the playing field. Where power is seen as a threat rather than something to be lauded.

Black women deserve to be valued. They deserve more empathy. They deserve to have their needs taken into consideration by policymakers. And, yes, when they make mistakes they deserve compassion rather than ridicule. They simply deserve better.

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