Is Anti-Doping Racist? (No. No, It Is Not)

Last Friday, we learned that Sha’Carri Richardson would not be travelling to Tokyo after she failed an in-competition drug test. In the world of 100m running, failing a drugs test is not uncommon (many of the top men and women have served bans including Justin Gatlin, Tyson Gay, Yohan Blake, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Marion Jones). Failing a drugs test is especially common in Sha’Carri’s world, as she has chosen to be coached by Dennis Mitchell (who served a ban for testosterone, admitted taking HGH, and was recently caught in a sting operation, assuring an undercover journalist that he could supply him with steroids) and to train alongside Justin Gatlin (who served two doping bans, the first one for amphetamines and the second for testosterone).

What did come as a surprise, was what she tested positive for at the US Olympic Trials – marijuana. Marijuana is only banned in-competition, and in 2013 the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) increased the threshold for a positive test tenfold, from 15 ng/ml to 150. One of the motivations for this change was to reduce the likelihood that recreational users would be sanctioned. Almost as soon as the positive test was revealed, commentators from all over the globe starting weighing in. Gary Lineker said she shouldn’t be punished because she “wasn’t a high jumper” (no Gary – she was a high sprinter), Donald Trump Jr. said he was “pretty damn sure weed has never made anyone faster” and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed that “the criminalization and banning of cannabis is an instrument of racist and colonial policy” and made an appeal on civil rights grounds to end Sha’carri’s suspension. Ocasio-Cortez also mistakenly claimed that the IOC had banned Sha’Carri, showing from the offset her lack of knowledge and understanding of anti-doping and elite sport.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of hundreds of tweeters (and thousands of retweeters) who claimed that Sha’Carri’s suspension was racist, or racially motivated. But was it? While no one would deny that there are systemic race issues in the United States of America (and across the world), is it fair to say that anti-doping rules are used to ‘prejudice, discriminate or antagonise‘ (to use the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of racism) Black athletes and to favour white athletes? Given the evidence we have to date, I do not believe that it is reasonable or right to say that.

Let’s look at Sha’Carri’s suspension for marijuana a little more closely. Firstly, she failed an in-competition test. Is there any evidence to support white athletes failing in-competition tests for the same substance and not being banned? Not that I can see. Several high profile white sportspeople including Tate Jackson, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Jason Williams have served bans and even, in the case of O’Sullivan, lost titles, following positive tests for marijuana. In the infamous case of Michael Phelps, who served three months on the sideline in comparison to Sha’Carri’s one month ban, it was a photo of Phelp’s smoking a joint that led to his suspension, not a positive in-competition test. Sha’Carri being given the minimum permitted ban for marijuana, contrasted with Phelps’ longer ban for a picture and O’Sullivan’s two year ban for cannabis, does not support the theory that Black athletes are being prejudiced or discriminated against when it comes to the policing of marijuana use in elite sports.

The brilliant, experienced anti-doping campaigner Renee Anne Shirley, former executive director of the Jamaican Anti-Doping agency, spoke out on Friday about overseeing of this issue in Jamaicia, where marijuana use is common. She tweeted that “many Jamaicans drink homemade ganja tea… ganja is used alongside raw ram to make topical creams/ ointments for aches/ pains” as well as smoking it. She further clarified that athletes are made aware of the in-competitions rules and that she could not remember the last time she heard of a Jamaican athlete getting an in-competition marijuana positive. If the Jamaicans can abstain just before and in-competition, surely everyone else can too!

Another angle that has been put forward by several commentators online, in an attempt to absolve Sha’Carri from the consequences of her actions, is that marijuana has been legalised in many US states, including Oregon, where the Olympic Trials was held. To her credit, Sha’carri Richardson has not put forward either of these arguments in relation to race or legalisation. She has admitted fault, admitted to knowingly using banned substance, and has accepted her short ban. Many of the accounts raising these concerns seem to be Sha’Carri fans rather than athletics fans, and are calling for a boycott on watching the Olympics unless their favourite athlete is re-instated. The legality of marijuana in Oregon, or elsewhere, is irrelevant to Sha’Carri’s ban, as it it banned under current WADA regulations. Several medications, which are legal to the wider public, are banned in competition with threshold limits (similar to marijuana) including salbutamol (asthma medication), ephedrine/ pseudoephedrine (commonly found in cold and flu medications), oxycodone (painkillers) etc.

It has further been suggested, although not as widely, that Sha’Carri’s ban is racially motivated, in that they do not want a Black woman to win the Olympics. This has mainly been suggested by American sports fans, who may not be aware of world-class sprinters from other countries, particularly Jamaica, who will likely be front runners for the Olympic title, with or without Sha’Carri being in attendance. These include Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (a double Olympic 100m champion and the fastest woman alive who ran 10.63), Shericka Jackson (multiple Olympic and world medalist who ran 10.77) and Elaine Thompson (Olympic 100m and 200m champion in 2016 who ran 10.78) – all of these times were recorded in June 2021. Other potential contenders include Blessing Okagbare (NGR), Dina Asher-Smith (GBR), Javianne Oliver (USA) and Marie- Josee Ta Lou (CIV). With or without Sha’Carri running at the Tokyo Olympics, it is almost a forgone conclusion that the w100m Champion will be a Black woman. In addition to this, eight of the previous nine Olympic Champions have been Black women, stretching back as far as 1984. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Sha’Carri’s one month suspension for marijuana (which, to her credit, she has accepted full responsibility for) is some sort of plot to prevent a Black woman from becoming Olympic Champion.

If we look further afield, is there any evidence to support that anti-doping is a racist endeavour? Again, this claim does not stand up to the scrutiny that Black athletes are treated more harshly or unfairly than other competitors. Ask a group of people who the most famous doper in the world is and, nine times out of ten, they will say Lance Armstrong. The most famous doping/ anti-doping story of recent times is Russia, who were banned from global competition since the 2018 Winter Olympics, a ban which continues to the present day. This ban was imposed because of a state-sponsored doping programme which was revealed through whistleblowers, a Netflix documentary and an in-depth, independent investigation by Dick Pound. The biggest doping story in recent history, therefore, involves almost exclusively white athletes.

Anti-doping is about rules – and whether you, me, an athlete or anyone else agree or disagree with the rules is largely immaterial. A crucial part of being an elite sportsperson is to make sure that you are following these rules, and most top class sportspeople have agents, managers and/ or advisors to support them in this regard. There are apps and websites where anyone can check the ingredients of medications and whether or not they are not the banned list. It is relatively easy not to take a prohibited substance, and it is even easier not to take one that is only banned in competition. Claiming that anti-doping rules are racist, when the evidence does not support that statement, undermines real and valid racism concerns and the work that is being done to fight them.

Anti-doping is many things. It is inefficient, and historically it has been largely ineffective at reducing doping. It is often toothless in the face of big name athletes (or their big name lawyers). It can be prone to bribery (see Liliya Shobukhova’s case), and is often accused of giving athletes two ‘get out of jail free’ cards to avoid anti-doping with the three strikes whereabouts rule. But is it racist? Given the evidence we have to date, it is not fair, reasonable or right to draw this conclusion.

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