Why was Sha'Carri Richardson left off the Olympic relay team?

P Photo/Ashley Landis

“Rules are rules,” we were told after she flunked a drug test for marijuana following her victory in the 100-meter dash at the Olympic trials. The rules may be dumb and antiquated and unjust, but everyone knew ’em and she broke ’em. That meant instant disqualification from her best event and a 30-day suspension.

But the rules would have allowed the U.S. Olympic Committee to add her to the 4×100 relay team. The top four finishers in the 100-meters at trials automatically make the team, then the Committee gets to add two discretionary picks. As luck would have it, that event will be held in Tokyo more than 30 days after Richardson’s drug suspension took effect. The Committee could have given her a taste of Olympic glory after all, with the not insignificant benefit to itself of having the fastest woman in America, possibly the world, competing for Team USA.

They announced last night that she’d be left off the relay team anyway. Richardson, who had stood a real chance of becoming the Games’ breakout star as recently as last week, will miss Tokyo entirely.

“It would be detrimental to the integrity of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field if USATF amended its policies following competition, only weeks before the Olympic Games,” USATF’s statement read. “All USATF athletes are equally aware of and must adhere to the current anti-doping code, and our credibility as the National Governing Body would be lost if rules were only enforced under certain circumstances.

“So while our heartfelt understanding lies with Sha’Carri, we must also maintain fairness for all of the athletes who attempted to realize their dreams by securing a place on the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team.”

Their credibility as a governing body has already been lost by not moving sooner to remove marijuana from the anti-doping list despite the lack of hard evidence that it enhances performance and the legalization efforts across the U.S. over the past five years. Reversing the policy after Richardson’s failed test, once it became controversial, would have been awkward but doing so would have averted an injustice. That would have done more for the Committee’s credibility than excluding Richardson on bad-rules-are-still-rules grounds will.

The Times notes an additional element to the decision. Because the six women on the relay team had already been told they’re going to Tokyo, reversing course now to include Richardson would have meant disappointing one of them:

But the coaches had already selected the members of the relay squad and had informed those runners of their placements before Richardson’s positive test became public.

After Richardson’s disqualification, the coaches chose the next six finishers in the 100-meter race and decided it would be unfair to take a slot away from one of those runners and give it to Richardson simply because that would be the only way to get her on the team. Also, the organization’s selection criteria do not include a provision for that sort of substitution.

I don’t understand that second paragraph. Was Richardson ineligible due to the selection criteria or was she eligible but denied for fairness reasons? “U.S. track coaches can fill out the Tokyo relay team with any sprinters who have qualified for the Games,” WaPo points out, which makes it sound like Richardson couldn’t have been added even if the coaches wanted to include her. Because she was disqualified from the 100-meters at trials and was ruled out of the 200-meters, she technically hadn’t qualified for any events.

So Richardson gets hosed, the U.S. doesn’t get to field its best team, the last woman named to the team has to perform knowing that she made it on a technicality, and the pointless anti-weed doping rule momentarily remains in place. The Committee’s bylaws should have granted it much more discretion in handling innocuous infractions like Richardson’s, but since they don’t, a small way they could atone now is to relax the rules against marijuana and have them take effect once the Olympics are over. Richardson will still miss the Games — rules are rules — but at least future heartbreak over drugs that don’t enhance performance will be averted.

Here’s Jen Psaki this morning saying it’s “maybe” time for a rules revamp.