Opinion | Why We Hold Olympic Athletes to Such Ridiculous and Cruel Standards

Sha’Carri Richardson, the 21-year-old American sprinter whose breakout victory in the 100-meter dash at the U.S. track and field Olympic trials in Oregon last month transformed her into an overnight star, posted a plaintive message on Twitter on Thursday afternoon: “I am human.”

What she was referring to became clear when news broke that the United States Anti-Doping Agency was suspending her for a month, after she tested positive for marijuana. Ms. Richardson says she used the drug after a reporter told her about the death of her biological mother. (Recreational marijuana is legal in the state of Oregon, where she was at the time.) Now, she’s out of the 100-meter dash at the Tokyo Olympics.

In her tweet, Ms. Richardson pointed out the obvious, and yet it needed to be said: She is human. Olympians are capable of superhuman feats of athleticism — but does that mean we must punish them when they prove to be fallible like the rest of us, after all?

Sometimes it seems that way. The best athletes in the world are already under extraordinary pressure to perform — but we require extraordinary conduct from them in parts of their lives that have nothing to do with their sports.

Of course, marijuana is a banned substance. Athletes are responsible for everything they put in their bodies, and for ensuring they comply with the rules. Ms. Richardson knew it might jeopardize her Olympic future.

“I’m not making an excuse or looking for any empathy,” Ms. Richardson told the “Today” show Friday morning, as she apologized to her fans, her family and her sponsors. She acknowledged that the news of her mother’s death had thrown her, and explained the pressure of having to “go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain.” She added, “I know that I can’t hide myself, so at least in some type of way I was just trying to hide my pain.”

It is devastating to think of the lengths that our best athletes go to handle their pain. Tiger Woods, who tested positive for marijuana, pain medications and sleep drugs when he was arrested for driving under the influence in 2017, said he was suffering from insomnia and pain from his fourth back operation. Suzy Favor Hamilton, the nine-time N.C.A.A. champion, suffered from depression after she retired from her athletic career; it led to scandal following the revelation that she’d been working as an escort. Olympian Raven Saunders talked recently about wanting to drive off the road two years after the 2016 Olympics. Michael Phelps has been public about his mental health struggles for years. (A photo of him smoking marijuana was published in 2009; he lost a sponsorship from Kellogg’s.)

We don’t just expect our Olympians to be incredible athletes. We expect them to be role models and to adhere to impossibly high levels of self-discipline, work ethics, and sportsmanship that have nothing to do with their actual job. Women, especially women of color, face even higher expectations.

Gwen Berry, a track and field Olympian who is facing criticism from conservative lawmakers for turning away from the American flag on the medal podium during the national anthem at the Olympic Trials, told me Ms. Richardson was being held to an impossible standard.

“When you are a young Black athlete, and when you come from hardship, the first thing you need is people to support you, and not just capitalize off you, off your potential,” Ms. Berry said. “She made a bad decision because of pain, because of trauma, and she’s a girl — she still needs help. Instead she’s being punished.”

Part of the issue is the rules themselves. Anti-doping policies at the national and world levels, while well-meaning and intended to catch cheaters, are complex, and they are often outdated. The World Anti-Doping Agency’s prohibition of marijuana is more than a decade old; marijuana has gained more acceptance since, and is legal in many states.

It’s also worth noting — though it wasn’t the issue in Ms. Richardson’s case — that tests are now so sensitive, they can pick up trace amounts of banned substances from unexpected sources, as small as a picogram, or trillionth of a gram. That means contamination in our food or prescribed drugs can lead to positive tests for athletes who did nothing more than take a perfectly allowable medication or eat meat from animals treated with a growth steroid. It’s becoming increasingly challenging to avoid banned substances and still live in the real world. (I’ve wondered how many of us mortals would pass a doping test if we took one today.)

The World Anti-Doping Agency made reforms in May, but the system often presumes that athletes are guilty — excluding them from competition, often for long stretches of time — until they can prove themselves innocent. That’s not how justice should work.

Like many Black public figures, Ms. Richardson is celebrated when she succeeds, but many are quick to pass judgment when there’s the slightest transgression. Ms. Richardson grew up navigating adversity that is either ordinary or extraordinary, depending on where you fall on the American inequality gap — but she persevered. When she signed her professional contract, she said her first thought was taking care of her family.

For Black athletes, Ms. Berry said, the pressure to be “perfect” is intense. “If we aren’t, we get everything taken from us,” she said. “We have to work twice as hard in society and in athletics, we’re not respected otherwise. … We have no room for error. We have no room to grieve. We are not supported. And that’s the problem. It’s because we are not equal.”

Ms. Richardson has accepted the ban, so anyone rooting for the rules should be satisfied. But a system that punishes athletes for being human is not a just system.

Lindsay Crouse (@lindsaycrouse) is a writer and producer in Opinion. She produced the Emmy-nominated Opinion Video series “Equal Play,” which brought widespread reform to women’s sports.

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