Sports

Drug Tests Are Ensnaring Too Many Clean Athletes

Sha’Carri Richardson catches her breath after winning the 100-meter.
Sha’Carri Richardson at the U.S. Olympic track trials on June 19 in Eugene, Oregon. Patrick Smith/Getty Images

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For Lindsay Crouse, the first sign that something wasn’t right with America’s fastest woman, Sha’Carri Richardson, came from social media. Richardson tweeted, “I am human,” and Crouse wondered what that meant. Crouse writes about sports for the New York Times, and she was also a competitive runner herself. So she knows athletes can sometimes post cryptic stuff.

She’d just watched Richardson pull off a tremendous win in the 100-meters at the Olympic trials. With her burnt-orange hair flying behind her, Sha’Carri Richardson dominated. Then, she ran up into the stands. That’s when Richardson collapsed into her grandmother’s arms. In a post-race interview, Richardson revealed that she rushed up to see her family because they’d been so key in helping her through some serious adversity—she’d recently learned that her biological mother had died. She got a lot of attention for that emotional revelation, and for her boisterous style on the track.

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But within a few days of her joyous victory, Sha’Carri Richardson was issuing an apology for coping with her mother’s death by using pot. And her trip to the Olympics got canceled, which started a debate. Sha’Carri Richardson isn’t the only Olympic athlete ensnared by a questionable drug test. On Monday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Crouse about Richardson’s case and whether this system designed to catch cheaters is actually working the way it’s supposed to. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Harris: Can you tell me a little bit more about who Sha’Carri Richardson is as a person? I know she’s just 21. She’s quite young.

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Lindsay Crouse: One thing that stands out about her is that she’s 5’1,” and this sport has typically favored tall sprinters. That’s always kind of made her an exception.

Is that just because they have long legs?

Yeah, long legs—theoretically, more power, more strength. And in her case, she’s just small and is able to put a lot of power into a tiny body. And obviously her attitude has backed that up a little bit by blowing kisses to the crowd, pointing at the clock, pointing at herself when she crosses  the finish line. And her grandmother, from what I understand, was the main caretaker as she was growing up. Her name is Betty Harp. And she raised Sha’Carri, along with her aunt. So that’s the kind of household that she grew up in.

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Yeah, it sounds like she grew up under tough circumstances. Part of the reason she said she was using pot was because a reporter had told her that her own biological mother had passed away. That’s a an awful position to be in.

Absolutely. And for me, that had echoes of Naomi Osaka—another debate or national outcry that we had when she decided that she didn’t want to do press conferences anymore, perhaps for reasons like this, where it can be in a reporter’s best interest to ask incendiary questions, to get a reaction, without necessarily a thought for the athlete. And in this case, Sha’Carri was pretty upfront about how that affected her.

The other thing that I think stood out to a lot of people questioning the decision to ban Sha’Carri for a month is that she used marijuana in Oregon, where it’s totally legal. It raises this question of why Olympic athletes are being tested for marijuana in the first place.

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It’s because WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, has put marijuana on the list of prohibited substances. This has nothing to do with whether a drug is legal or not in America or in a state.

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The rules about what substances athletes can and can’t ingest are set by the World Anti-Doping Agency, and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, or USADA, is bound to enforce them. That enforcement is rigorous. Elite athletes have to be constantly tested, whether or not they’re in competition, including at random intervals to make sure they aren’t following a doping schedule. And to WADA, even a drug like marijuana can be considered “performance enhancing.”

There aren’t a lot of rigorous studies of marijuana as a performance enhancer generally. A lot of the studies that do exist around marijuana are more than a decade old. And that’s where a lot of scrutiny of WADA’s rules is coming from, that a lot of these rules are obsolete and aren’t in line with the current attitudes and science. And that’s why people are feeling outraged right now. They’re wondering, Are the rules there to support clean athletes in the first place? Are they there to protect athletes, or are they there to just punish any athlete who doesn’t adhere to a rule for the sake of it?

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How did the World Anti-Doping Agency come to be in the first place?

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They were founded in 1999 after a crisis at the Tour de France, where authorities discovered widespread organized doping among cyclists. And their reason for existing is pure. It’s to protect clean sport and clean athletes.

But of course, like many global regulatory bodies, execution can be trickier. There’s conflicts of interest. There’s bureaucracy. And now their rules, while well-intended, are both incredibly complicated and also unnuanced—marijuana, of course, being a major example of that. And so once you get caught in their snares, if you are innocent, it’s quite difficult to exonerate yourself.

At the same time, the reason why these rules exist is that athletes can go on cheating for years and not miss a test. And that’s kind of the Catch-22 that this system is in.

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You’re saying that athletes can cheat for years and never miss a test. Can you explain that a little bit?

Sure, that’s what we saw with Lance Armstrong. There are all sorts of conspiracies about microdosing. This is why athletes are subjected to random testing throughout the year where they don’t know when the authorities are going to come. And then you have to constantly report your whereabouts, etc.

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So athletes and the anti-doping agencies are in this constant push and pull. Some competitors chafe at the idea that WADA needs to know where they are at all times and end up missing random tests. And when that happens, it can be hard to know whether their excuses are real or they’re trying to avoid being caught. When athletes do test positive, they often protest, loudly.

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Many of the excuses that come up are outlandish claims that have to do with tainted meat or tainted drugs. But all of these scenarios are also plausible. So it puts authorities in this complicated position: Who do you believe and how do you prove whether someone’s telling the truth or not? I did a report on an Olympic middle distance runner named Brenda Martinez, who had a positive test for antidepressants that she was taking. And the only way that she was able to exonerate herself was by still having some of those pills from the exact batch that was tainted with a diuretic. And so she was able to provide it to one of USADA’s labs for testing, and it was, in fact, tainted with the diuretic. And so in that case, she was able to exonerate herself and get her positive test labeled a no fault positive.

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I want to talk about how the World Anti-Doping Agency works more generally, even outside of marijuana, because Sha’Carri isn’t the only athlete to lose a shot at the Olympics because of a testing hurdle. Can you tell me a little bit about these other track and field athletes: Shelby Houlihan and Brianna McNeal? Both of them have raised questions about tests that have kept them out of competition.

So last month, Brianna McNeal was suspended for five years for tampering with the results management process because she missed a doping test two days after she had an abortion and she hadn’t told anyone at that time that she was having an abortion.

And my understanding is that the testers actually came to her door and knocked, and she was just out of it and didn’t answer the door. And that started this cycle where all of a sudden she was in hot water.

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That’s actually standard. If an athlete knew when someone was coming, then they could just plan a cheating regimen around that. And so that’s part of why you have to report your whereabouts and you get these surprise drug tests when you’re not even in competition. That’s routine. If you want to compete, that’s what you have to do. And so in this case, she said she was in bed recovering from the procedure. She didn’t hear the official. That’s what she said. And so now she’s disqualified from all events through the Olympics and she’s got to give up her medals, her prizes, her money.

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And again, this is not a positive test.

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Exactly. She has not ever tested positive for anything. However, she did get a yearlong ban when she missed three tests in a 12-month period. And in those cases, she said that she forgot to update her whereabouts in the system that tests athletes randomly. That’s a common excuse for athletes. It’s also one that clean athletes roll their eyes at.

In some ways, there are a lot of parallels to Sha’Carri, where it is your responsibility as an athlete to prove that you’re a clean athlete. And if you want to do that, you have to update your whereabouts. However, I think it’s hard to not have empathy for someone who—I mean, I was really struck by my colleague Juliet Macur’s reporting that Brianna said she had an abortion just to compete in the 2020 Olympics.

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That stood out to me too. She knew she couldn’t have a baby and go to Tokyo. And then, of course, the 2020 Olympics were postponed.

To me, that was just so devastating because it’s whispered about having abortions in order to compete in the Olympics, because you just literally can’t qualify, let alone compete at a high level if you’re pregnant.

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But she said that she was so upset about the abortion that she wasn’t thinking straight. And with all of these cases, you just have to wonder, what if the athlete is telling the truth? In this case, it is not a system where you are innocent until proven guilty. It’s the opposite. And that’s a difficult system.

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Tell me about Shelby Houlihan, because her situation is different but also raises these questions.

Shelby’s situation, if she’s telling the truth, is just absolutely devastating. She tested positive for nandrolone, which is a steroid, and Nike took it straight to the courts. They challenged it in the courts and they lost. And so in the week right before the trials, she had to withdraw. And she claims that the source of the substance was from a food truck. She says that she was given a pork burrito—a botched order. This is the challenge with all of these things. By the time you have the test results, you can’t recover the source of the meat that you’ve consumed.

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And we’ve seen this before. We saw this with Jarrion Lawson, who was the first man since Jesse Owens to win the 100-meters, the 200, and the long jump at the same NCAA championships. And he had a beef teriyaki bowl at a Japanese restaurant in Arkansas. And then he tested positive for trenbolone, which is another steroid. And in his case, they were tracking down beef suppliers, which do treat cows with trenbolone to make them grow.

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Was he able to prove it?

He was eventually. He exonerated himself through old text messages about what he wanted to have that day for lunch with his partner and a receipt from the restaurant that he retained. But he still lost 19 months of competition to the suspension while he fought the charge. And if you’re an athlete like him, that’s a devastating amount of time to miss out on when you’re at the prime of your career. So I think of athletes like him when I think about Shelby, and I just wonder what if she’s telling the truth. You just don’t know.

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It’s important to acknowledge that even though plenty of athletes cry foul at the World Anti-Doping Agency’s attempts to police them, doping is real. And athletes are good at covering their tracks, which is why WADA has gradually made their testing more and more aggressive. But the agency has had some notable misses. A few years back, reporters discovered that Russian athletes were using steroids in an elaborate scheme.

A Russian government chemist helped orchestrate the covert distribution of steroids to dozens of the country’s top athletes. And that was around Sochi in 2014, the Winter Games when Russia went on to win 33 Olympic medals. At the end of the day, at least a third of the medal winners wound up being linked to the doping scheme. Russian agents replaced the tainted urine samples with clean ones in the middle of the night through a hole in the wall at the testing laboratory. And that was an example of a story where WADA was really criticized. They were told a few times about it, and they didn’t act the way you would want them to. In some cases, they actually sent messages back to Russia about it instead of going after the perpetrators. And so there’s a lot of distrust of all the entities that are charged with protecting clean athletes.

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You’re talking about how a reporter uncovered this scheme. You’re talking about the World Anti-Doping Agency turning away from the evidence they had until they couldn’t do that anymore. While at the same time, the anti-doping agency is ensnaring these individual actors on U.S. track and field. And these people are saying, “Hold it. Like, I smoked pot once after my mom died, or I ate a pork burrito.” It just seems like the system is not working right, if that’s the way it’s working.

That’s the main criticism right now of the system. If you talk to Travis Tygart, who’s the head of USADA, he’s critical of WADA for compelling him to enforce a system that he says is railroading clean athletes. Athletes who are testing positive for substances that we’re all ingesting now are not involved in the kind of campaigns that are upending sport and making a lot of people skeptical of track and field or skeptical of cycling. And meanwhile, he’s spending his time going after Brenda Martinez when really it’s these bigger schemes that he should be investing his time and energy in. That’s why WADA was created and that’s what it is charged with ultimately targeting or penalizing. And as we saw with Sochi, it isn’t doing that as effectively as it probably should be.

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