There has always been a tension between the rules makers and rules breakers, a tension whose roots lie deep in the Garden of Eden beneath the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Doesn’t everything?

The tension governance faces in overseeing rules breakers is meant to achieve a specific goal, the even playing field. Within their dominion lay infractions both serious and less so, ones that break either the letter or the spirit of the law, or both. In the end, it is left to the judges to decide how best to maintain the integrity of the enterprise once all agree to abide by the same rules. 

We are experiencing evidence of that tension currently in a high profile case pitting American sprint star Sha’Carri Richardson against an increasingly anachronistic, yet still standing, rule which penalizes the use of marijuana in conjunction with competition. 

Richardson was found to have THC in her system when she was tested at the US Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon where she convincingly won the women’s 100 meter dash, making her an instant medal favorite in the Tokyo Games later this month.  

Though legal in the state of Oregon, marijuana remains on the list of “in-competition “ banned substances by WADA. And WADA’s rules, not Oregon’s, oversee all Athletics’ meetings. 

After testing positive, Richardson didn’t deny taking marijuana but instead claimed it was the surprising news of her biological mother’s recent death and the stress of the Trials that precipitated her use. 

She said learning about her mother sent her into a state of “emotional panic”. 

Notwithstanding her explanation of mental stress, Richardson was handed a 30-day suspension and stripped of her 100 meters win in Eugene. That, in turn, obligated USATF to remove Richardson from the U. S. Olympic 100-meter team for Tokyo. However, due to the timing of her suspension, Richardson may yet be eligible for the U.S. 4 X 100m Relay final, if she is included in the pool of athletes.

Richardson’s marijuana drug failure falls primarily under the letter rather than the spirit of the law, as pot is not a performance enhancing substance in the more traditional sense, especially in an explosive event like the 100 meter dash, though there is a pain reduction element that tears the letter-spirit membrane slightly. 

While the 30-day suspension, itself, is a recognition that the offense was minor, the timing of the infraction elevates the penalty to the highest severity as it takes Richardson’s Olympic opportunity away from what was likely to be one of the highest profile athletes in Tokyo.  

The sport of Athletics has seen its fortunes fall dramatically over the last two generations. Much of that fall can be attributed to the multitude of high profile drug cases and the governing bodies’ responses, or lack of response, meaning corruption. Yet the irony is that Athletics has been more assiduous in trying to  catch drug cheats than other sports. And for so doing, has suffered in the eyes of the public. Other sports have essentially looked the other way. 

Major League Baseball resurrected its own fortunes on the back of drug-fueled home run barrages. And the American pastime has always had a quaint, “if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’”mentality, until the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros were caught stealing catcher’s signals via a secret camera perched in center field throughout the season and playoffs.  

Today, it’s the use of sticky substances to aid pitchers’ grips that is being actively challenged. But stealing catchers’ signs by a runner on second base, or trying to decipher bunt or steal signs from the opposing team’s third-base coach are as old as the game itself.

So where is the line between gamesmanship – legal sign-stealing  – and illegal advantage?  Is it the sophisticated use of electronics?

These type of questions challenge every sport, and it is why there are governing bodies in the first place. We ditched the honor system a long time ago. 

But just as many athlete excuses strain credulity, it’s equally hard to believe every positive result as unassailable, too. Perhaps that’s why both Sha’Carri Richardson and Shelby Houlihan, the American record holder in the 1500 & 5000m who was popped and suspended for a banned steroid before the Olympic Trials, have received a great deal of public support despite the positive tests. At the same time, irrespective of how the banned substances entered their systems, every drug protocol warns the athlete that he/she is personally responsible for everything that goes into their bodies. 

Sha’Carri Richardson, therefore, has no excuse, no matter how understandable her reasoning may be for violating what most see as a rule in need of changing. Still, she should’ve known she was jeopardizing her Olympic dream. Was there NO other coping mechanism at her disposal except a banned drug? 

Devastating as the penalty is, Sha’Carri accepted her suspension with grace. “I know what I did, I know what I’m supposed to do, what I’m allowed not to do, and I still made that decision,” Richardson said in an interview with NBC’s “Today Show” Friday morning. In that sense, the letter of the law has been followed to the dotted-i and crossed-t. 

However, we are reminded that it was the Pharisees who placed the letter of the law above the spirit in the Bible. And in the Gospels, Jesus was highly critical of the Pharisees. 

Remember, too, in The Merchant of Venice, how the merchant Antonio took a loan from Shylock to help his friend Bassanio court Portia. However, by agreement, if his loan wasn’t repaid, Shylock could exact a pound of Antonio’s flesh in its debt. And when the loan did go unpaid, Portia dressed as a lawyer and came to Antonio’s defense, famously pleading to Shylock “the quality of mercy is not strain’d…It is twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.“

When Shylock remained unmoved,  Portia returned to the letter of the agreement, pointing out that Shylock’s terms made no mention of blood in the bargain. Therefore Shylock could have his pound of flesh, but only if he shed no blood in its taking. 

In Sha’Carri Richardson’s case, the spirit of what promised to be an electrifying competition in Tokyo now runs red with the spilled blood that came with the 110 pounds of flesh WADA removed.  Perhaps WADA should’ve asked, WWJD? Or, instead, Sha’Carri should’ve spared them to need to ask in the first place. 


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