~ by Meredith Syms

As a competitive athlete myself, I know the amount of drive, discipline, focus, physical commitment, and sheer will it takes to be good at a sport and to make a positive contribution to your team’s effort to win.  Now times that by about one million percent and that is what it takes to be a world champion or to receive a coveted spot on the United States Olympic Team.  To represent your country at the Olympics, to be recognized as one of the best in the world, to make history – it means something.  It means you are one of the few who can “go the distance”, as Rocky would say, when most others would falter.  There is great honor in that and deserving of all our respect and admiration.

This is why the story of Olympic gold frontrunner Sha’Carri Richardson’s removal from the US Olympic Track and Field Team after testing positive for THC is heartbreaking on so many levels.  Richardson immediately apologized and revealed she smoked marijuana upon hearing from a reporter that her mother had died.  But Richardson must now pay a hefty personal and financial price for breaking the rules.  She will not be going to Tokyo.  She will not win a gold medal.  She cannot help her team win a gold medal.  And she can kiss the millions in financial rewards from endorsements goodbye.  And for what reason?  All because she could not abstain from smoking marijuana for 30 or 60 days before competition. 

Many are saying it is a dumb rule and that marijuana has no impact on performance and so it shouldn’t even be punishable.  Some are calling for marijuana to be eliminated from the athlete anti-doping restrictions.  I don’t know the answer and will leave that to the experts on what does and does not impact performance.

What I do know is that there are very specific rules athletes must follow both on the playing field and off.  If a high school athlete were to cheat on a test, for example, they would be punished and that punishment would likely include being banned from the team and perhaps, expelled from the school altogether.  All athletes are aware of the rules and they make the choice to follow them or not.  We know the risks of breaking the rules. 

In Richardson’s case, I have tremendous empathy for her, knowing that all the hard work she put into making it to the Tokyo Olympics is now sidelined.  It is hard for us to watch so I can only imagine how devastating it must be for her to be living this nightmare.

Yet, Richardson has handled her loss better than most.  She acknowledged she broke the rules and apologized for letting people down, knowing the Tokyo Olympics was likely no longer a possibility.  And in doing so, she revealed the heart of a champion – someone willing to face their weakness and use it as a learning experience. 

Rather than complain about the fairness of the rule, Richardson owned it, perhaps helping others who also might have to endure pain in a very public forum.  Richardson said, “To put on a face, to have to go in front of the world and put on a face and hide my pain… I was definitely triggered and blinded by emotions, blinded by badness, and hurting and hiding hurt.”  In her apology, Richardson said “I’m sorry I can’t be ya’ll Olympic Champ this year, but I promise I’ll be your World Champ next year.”  I see great honor in that.

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