Drugs and the Olympics

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S1: For Lindsay Crouse, the first sign, something wasn’t right with America’s fastest woman, Sha’Carri Richardson came from social media.

S2: When I saw her post on Twitter, I am human, I was really wondering what she meant.

S1: Lindsay writes about sports for The New York Times. She was also a competitive runner herself. She knows athletes can sometimes post this cryptic stuff, but she had just watched Richardson pull off this tremendous win at the Olympic trials. Who’s going to Tokyo? We’re about to find out. With her burnt orange hair flying behind her Sha’Carri Richardson dominated Sha’Carri Richardson’s going into the game. Then she ran up into the stands. I think she’s going to find mom. That’s when Richardson collapsed into her grandmother’s arms.

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S3: We’ll talk about the race in a moment. But just a rush to get up the steps to see your family, your grandmother, your dad, your mom, everybody. What is that? What did that mean?

S4: Because my family has kept me grounded. This year has been crazy for me, going from just last week, losing my biological mother and I’m still here.

S2: It was just this feeling of, you know, she’s winning despite some serious adversity here.

S4: Nobody knows what I go through. Everybody has struggles and I understand it. But you seen me on this check and I see the poker face I put on my no candy, but then is my coat. You know, what I go through on a day to day basis. And I’m highly grateful to what I do. And I would be on me without my grandmother now would be Sha’Carri Richardson. So my family’s my everything, my everything is here today. I’m done.

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S2: You could kind of hear her voice shake a little bit when she talked about it, but she persevered and she pushed through that and I think that’s what it was, that attitude, but also that interview that caught even more people’s attention. It was this feeling that, you know, you’re doing something superhuman, but you’re fighting battles like we all may be, especially after year, like what we all went through.

S1: Within a few days of her joyous victory on the track, 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. So when Sha’Carri tested positive for marijuana. Did it surprise you?

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S2: Yeah, I think it surprised a lot of people, but it’s kind of in keeping with the persona that she presented to us over that whole few days of the trials of sort of saying, I’m just going to do things my way. And I think that resonated with a lot of people. Rules are the rules. Like, I had to take a drug test before I started my job at The New York Times. Does that make sense? Not necessarily. I think that’s what’s kind of striking a chord here with people about marijuana, is that drugs are banned if they meet two of three criteria. And those have to do with enhancing performance, posing a health risk or violating the spirit of sport. And two of those criteria are highly subjective. Right. And I think that’s why people got so upset about this. It’s like it was became a research test for our values as much as something scientific.

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S1: Today on the show, Sha’Carri Richardson isn’t the only Olympic athlete ensnared by a questionable drug test. So is this system, which is designed to catch cheaters actually working the way it’s supposed to? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. So you mentioned how Sha’Carri you’d you’d heard about her, but you were sort of looking forward to seeing her at the trials, can you tell me a little bit more about who she is as a person? I know she’s just she’s just 21. She’s quite young.

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S2: Well, first of all, one thing that stands out about her is that she’s five one. And in this sport, it’s typically favored tall sprinters. That’s always kind of made her an exception. And is that just because

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S1: they have long legs?

S2: Yeah, long legs are theoretically more power, more strength. And in her case, you know, she’s just small and is able to put a lot of power into a tiny body, so to speak. And obviously, her attitude has sort of backed that up a little bit by kind of blowing kisses to the crowd, pointing at the clock, pointing at herself when she crosses the finish line. And I mean, in this case, she her grandmother, from what I understand, is sort of the main kind of caregiver in her life or a caretaker as she was growing up. Her name was Betty Harpe, 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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S1: Yeah, it sounds like she grew up under tough circumstances. Like 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, which you start thinking about all that and you just think, oh, that’s a an awful position to be in.

S2: Absolutely. And for me, that had echoes of Naomi Hosaka sort of the another debate or national kind of 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 and without necessarily a thought for the athlete, him or herself. And in this case, Sha’Carri was pretty upfront about how that affected her.

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S1: The other thing that I think stood out to a lot of people questioning the decision to ban Sha’Carri from a month of running is that she used marijuana in Oregon, where it’s totally legal. It just raises this question of why Olympic athletes are being tested for marijuana in the first place.

S2: Right. And I mean, of course, that is 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. Of course, marijuana is legal for recreational use. And I think more than a dozen states at this point, including Oregon.

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S1: But whether a drug is legal, where an athlete is, doesn’t have anything to do with whether it’s permissible in the eyes of the Olympics. The rules about what substances athletes can and can’t ingest get set by the World Anti-Doping Agency WADA, as Lindsay calls it, and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency RUSADA is bound to enforce those rules. What that enforcement looks like 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 could be considered performance enhancing.

S2: There aren’t a lot of rigorous studies of marijuana as a performance. Hence are generally, I think, what a lot of the studies that do exist around marijuana are more than a decade old. And that’s kind of where a lot of critique or scrutiny of WADA’s rules is coming from, that a lot of these rules are obsolete and aren’t in line with, you know, the current both attitudes of this time and also science of this time. And that’s where that’s why people are feeling outraged right now, is that 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 kind of just punish any athlete who doesn’t adhere to a rule for the sake of it?

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S1: Hmm, well, talk to me a little bit about that, like why how did the World Anti-Doping Association come to be in the first place? Like, was there a particular scandal where the wider sport community thought, OK, we have to crack down here?

S2: They were founded in 1999 after a crisis of the Tour de France, where authorities discovered widespread organized doping among cyclists.

S3: It’s being talked about in factory as the blackest day in the history of the Tour de France in the history, which goes back, by the way, to nineteen hundred and three. What we have to

S2: remember and the reason for existing is is pure. It’s to protect clean sport and clean athletes. But of course, like many global regulatory bodies, execution can be trickier. There is conflicts of interest, there’s bureaucracy and now there are rules, while well intended, are both incredibly complicated and there are also a nuanced at once. I marijuana, of course, being a major example of that. And so once you get caught in their snares, if you’re innocent, it’s quite difficult to exonerate yourself. It’s it really is a system where you are guilty until you’re able to prove yourself innocent. And of course, 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 the system is in. But at the same time, the fact that athletes do get banned for years and then later exonerate themselves, that the cost to their careers is immeasurable, especially because these are careers that are often over by your mid 30s. If you have a long career,

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S1: you’re seeing that athletes can cheat for years and never miss a test. Can you explain that a little bit?

S2: Sure. I mean, that’s what we saw with Lance Armstrong. I mean, there’s all sorts of conspiracies about micro dosing, about I mean, 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, et cetera.

S1: So the 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. They end up missing random tests. And when that happens, it can be hard to know if their excuses are real or whether they’re just trying to avoid being caught. When athletes do test positive, they often protest loudly.

S2: Many of the excuses that come up are outlandish claims they have to do with tainted meat or tainted drugs. But all of these scenarios are also plausible. And so it puts authorities in this complicated position of who do you believe and how do you prove whether someone’s telling the truth or not? I mean, I did a report on an Olympic middle distance runner named Brenda Martinez, who had a positive test and it was 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. She still had some of it. And so she was able to provide it to one of USADA labs for testing in it. 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 false positive. Huh.

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S1: I want to talk about how the World Anti-Doping Agency just 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 Briana McNeill? Because both of them have raised questions about tests that have kept them out of competition.

S2: Sure. So last month, Brianna McNeil 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, obviously.

S1: And my understanding is that the testers actually they came to her door and knocked and she was just sort of out of it and didn’t answer the door. And that sort of started this cycle where all of a sudden she was in hot water.

S2: And so that’s actually standard. And again, for the reasons that we were talking about, about how you have to and 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 got you have to report your whereabouts and you get the surprise drug tests when you’re not even in competition. And that’s standard. That’s routine. Everyone clean athletes, not you know, 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 did. Here are 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 or prizes her money.

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S1: And again, this is not a positive test. This is just the fact that she sent in a doctor’s note, but then changed a date because she thought that it was wrong.

S2: She says exactly. She has not ever tested positive for anything. However, she did get a year long 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 random system or in the system that tests athletes randomly. And so that’s that’s a common excuse for athletes. It’s also one that clean athletes kind of roll their eyes out. And she also said that she made a mistake about when she’d be available. So it’s like it is your it’s 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. This is my colleague Juliet Macur is reporting, but she said that Brianna had an abortion just to compete in the 2020 Olympics.

S1: That stood out to me, too, like she knew she couldn’t have a baby and go to Tokyo. Yeah, of course, the 2020 Olympics were postponed.

S2: To me, that was just so devastating because it’s whispered about having abortions in order to compete in the Olympics, because you just you just literally can’t qualify, let alone compete at a high level if you’re pregnant. And yeah, I thought that was so devastating. 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? I mean, that’s technically how the justice system should work. And in this case, it is not a system where you are innocent until proven guilty. It’s the it’s the opposite. And that’s that’s a difficult system. Yeah.

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S1: Tell me about Shelby Hoolahan, because her situation is different, but also raises these questions.

S2: So Shelby’s situation, if she’s telling the truth, is just absolutely devastating, where she tested positive for nandrolone, which is a steroid, and they took it straight to the courts, Nikita. 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 it was from the set that the source of the substance was from a food truck. She says that she was given a pork burrito. So sort of like a botched order. And this is the challenge with all of these things. You can’t actually really recover by the time you’re having the test and the test results. You can’t recover the source of the meat that you’ve consumed. And we’ve seen this before. We saw this with Jurgen Lawson was the first man since Jesse Owens to win the 100 meters, the two hundred, the long jump at the same, and the NCAA championships. And he had a beef teriyaki bowl at a Japanese restaurant in Arkansas in 2013. And then he tested positive for trenbolone, which is another steroid. And in his case, you know, first of all, they’re tracking down beef suppliers which do treat Crouse with trenbolone to make them grow. We’re all ingesting these substances.

S1: Was he able to prove it?

S2: Well, so 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 again, if you’re an athlete like him, that’s that’s a devastating amount of time to miss out when you’re at the prime or the peak of your career. So I think of athletes like him when when I think about Shelby and I just wonder what if what if she’s telling the truth, you just don’t know.

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S1: When we come back, more some individual athletes are getting caught up in the anti-doping system. Who are regulators missing? 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,

S2: a Russian government chemist helped orchestrate the current 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 thirty three Olympic medals. And in the end of the day, at least a third of the medal winners wound up being linked to the doping scheme. And so, I mean, that that was a that was a scandal where it had stories like Russian agents replace the tainted urine samples with clean ones in the middle of the night through a hole in the wall, 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 to Russia about it instead of, you know, going after the perpetrators. And so there’s a lot of distrust of all the entities that are charged with protecting clean athletes. And that was certainly an example of it.

S1: And what’s interesting to me about that story is that you’re talking about how your colleague, a reporter, uncovered this scheme to give steroids to Russian athletes and have it not be detected by the World Anti-Doping Agency. You’re talking about the World Anti-Doping Agency kind of turning away from the evidence they had until they couldn’t do that anymore. Well, 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 this was a one time, like I smoked pot once after my mom died or I ate a pork burrito. It just seems like the it seems like the system is not working right, if that’s the way it’s working.

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S2: And that’s exactly right. I mean, I think that’s the main criticism right now of the system, is that, you know, if you talk to Travis Tygart, who’s the head of USTR, the U.S. arm of this, 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 schemes or 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, you know, going after Brenda Martinez when really it’s sort of these these bigger schemes that he should be investing his time and energy. And that’s 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 it isn’t doing that as effectively as it probably should be.

S1: Scientists often talk about how medical tests have to be both sensitive and specific. A sensitive test picks up even the smallest results. A specific test filters out all the noise. You need a balance of both to be accurate. But why does drug testing regimen does neither of those things? A lot of the athletes getting swept up don’t seem like egregious cheaters, and a lot of the actual dopers seem to be flying under the radar of any sports associations, Olympics or otherwise considered, just not testing athletes anymore, like what would be what would happen if that happened.

S2: Also, some some sports organizations are loosening their rules, like the NFL loosened its rules on marijuana. You’re tested two weeks in training camp and now you’re just fine and sort of suspended baseball, removed pot from banned substances. The UFC, the ultimate fighting championship, is an example of an organization that’s really progressive on doping rules and thresholds, partly because it’s not covered by WADA, but it just has more kind of targeted and lenient rules that seem to be upheld by many bodies as being both humane and and fair.

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S1: I want to turn back to Sha’Carri because for a minute after she was bounced from the sport for a month, it looked like she might get a chance to go to Tokyo anyway because she could have been chosen to run the 100 meter relay. It was scheduled to take place after her window of suspension was over. But now that seems like it’s off the table. So what happened there?

S2: Well, because she had this positive test, it was up to USA track and field. If they wanted to include her on the four by one hundred relay and they chose not to, but they’d already informed the rest of the team that was going to be part of this relay, that they were on it. And so it would have harmed one of the athletes who didn’t break the rules by taking them off the team in favor of Sha’Carri, who did break the rules. And so you could argue that they were being fair by doing that.

S1: And Sha’Carri didn’t campaign for a spot on the relay.

S2: No, again, I think from all accounts and I haven’t spoken to her, but from all accounts, she’s sad about this but has not appealed. And USATF, USA Track and field, they said that all athletes in their statement, they made it clear that all athletes are aware of and they have to adhere to the current anti-doping code. And their credibility would be in question if they only enforce the rules for some athletes and not for Sha’Carri if she got special treatment because she’s kind of got a higher profile and a lot of popular support. And that’s completely fair. I think this is where mental health comes into question of is Sha’Carri getting the support that she needs? But that doesn’t mean that she deserves a slot on the team if she broke the rules. And it also means that, as USADA said, that they should, that the rules should be perhaps reassessed, that she was responsible for adhering to the current rules.

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S1: Yeah. We mentioned how Sha’Carri is really young, so I guess the silver lining is we may still see her running at an Olympics. We just got to wait a little while.

S2: Yeah, and not even the Olympics. She that’s another thing that she’s been pretty vocal about, that she’s going to come back for the world championships. So I have no idea what’s going through her mind. But she seems, you know, she has a long career ahead of her, certainly more four year cycles. This was only a one month ban. And, yeah, an Olympics is an Olympics, but there are other opportunities to be the best sprinter in the world.

S1: Lindsay Crouse, thank you so much for joining me. Thanks for having me. Lindsay Crouse is a senior editor for The New York Times. She’s also the producer of the documentary Four point One Miles. And that is our show, What Next is produced by Elaina Schwartz, Carmel Delshad, Mary Wilson, Danielle, Hewitt and Davis Land. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can go track me down on Twitter and that Mary’s desk. I will catch you back in this feed tomorrow.