Sha’Carri Richardson, one of Team USA’s most marketable young Olympians, has accepted a one-month suspension following a failed drug test, which will make her ineligible to compete in the 100 meters in Tokyo.
The suspension, the shortest length allowed for marijuana use, was announced Friday by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Though it vacates her qualifying time for the 100 meters, the ban concludes before the track portion of the Olympics begins, meaning she could technically be eligible to compete in the 4×100 meter relay in Tokyo, though it is unclear if that’s realistic.
Richardson’s agent and the U.S. track governing body didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Her exclusion from the Olympics would be a blow for stakeholders across the U.S. Olympic movement, including broadcast partner NBC Sports and Richardson’s primary sponsor, Nike. Track and field runs for the entire second half of the Games and is among the most popular and most watched sports at the Olympics.
Nike expressed support for Richardson. “We appreciate Sha’Carri’s honesty and accountability and will continue to support her through this time,” a company spokesman said.
In an interview on NBC’s Today show on Friday, the 21-year-old admitted she used marijuana as she was dealing with news that her biological mother had died, a fact revealed to her by a reporter during the Olympic Trials last month. “I’d like to say to my fans, my family, my [sponsors], and the haters, too, I apologize,” Richardson said on Today. “I apologize for the fact that I didn’t control … my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time.”
Saying the death of her mother and the pressures of the Trials sent her into an “emotional panic,” Richardson asked people not to judge her. “I’m human,” she said. “I’m you. I just happen to run a little faster.”
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) July 2, 2021
Richardson tested positive on a sample taken June 19 at the U.S. team trials, USADA said. Though the suspension for THC is often much longer, it was reduced because the use occurred “out of competition and was unrelated to sport performance,” USADA said. She also completed a counseling program.
“The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels,” USADA CEO Travis Tygart said in a statement. “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.”
Signed. Sealed. Delivered.
— NBC Sports (@NBCSports) June 20, 2021
NBC paid $4.38 billion for broadcast rights to the 2014-2020 Olympic Games and later extended the deal through the 2032 Games at a total cost of $7.75 billion. Losing one of Team USA’s most recognizable stars could cause heartache for fans and sponsors alike.
“What’s unfortunate is that regardless of anyone’s opinion on marijuana, if the IOC has banned a substance, every elite athlete knows that substance can’t show up in a random sample/test,” Rick Burton, a former chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee, said in an interview. “And while the IOC may choose to stand firm on a positive/violation, parties like the USOPC, Nike and NBC have a vested reason for not wanting to lose a possible medalist.”
Known for her long nails and flowing multicolored hair, an homage to Team USA legend Florence Griffith Joyner, Richardson burst onto the scene a few years ago as a freshman at LSU, winning a national title in the 100 meters. She turned pro in June 2019, and qualified for her first Olympic games last month, winning the 100 meters at the U.S. Trials. That performance has now been disqualified.
Despite marijuana’s legalization in a number of U.S. states, it remains prohibited in competition by USADA, which adheres to guidelines laid out by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The WADA raised its threshold for a positive test for THC tenfold, to 150 nanograms per milliliter of urine from 15 nanograms per milliliter, prior to the 2014 Games in Sochi.
Athletes without an approved waiver, known as a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE), are subject to sanctions if they test positive for marijuana or cannabinoids.
(This story has been updated with details and additional comments throughout.)