After being delayed a year, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are now in their second week, with track & field events currently ongoing. But the fastest woman in America will not be running any races at these games. In early July, American track athlete Sha’Carri Richardson received a one-month suspension from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency after testing positive for marijuana use during the U.S. Track & Field trials. While the suspension recently expired, Richardson was left off the Olympic team entirely. The disciplinary action received significant pushback on social media, especially following Richardson’s sensational performance in the 100-meter dash at trials. Many people viewed this treatment to be unfair and biased. It is not the only controversial decision that was made regarding athlete eligibility and performance in the lead-up to the Olympics. Notably, two Namibian teenage runners were deemed ineligible to participate due to naturally high testosterone levels. More broadly, swim caps designed for Black hair were prohibited from use at the Olympics. This begs two questions: Why does there seem to be such a strong and disproportionate regulation on Black athletes, and to what extent are sporting organizations entitled to control athletes’ lives?
The World Doping Agency, the International Olympic Committee and many other sporting institutions are operating on flimsy and outdated standards for performance eligibility. Many scientific perspectives do not view marijuana as a performance-enhancing drug; likewise, testosterone levels are not necessarily linked with improved athletic performance, and even if they were, they would demonstrate an inherent and natural competitive edge rather than a manufactured and unfair advantage. More broadly, these institutions have unfairly presumed the role of policing the bodies of athletes and what they do with them outside of their performance in the sport, reflective of our culture of celebrity worship and our view of elite athletes as paragons of health that must be controlled. We encourage both institutions and individuals to acknowledge and evaluate the biases that may be informing their standards and decisions, and to move forward in creating rules and regulations that do not unconsciously exclude certain athletes.
Anti-doping institutions are operating on flimsy scientific standards removed from biological reality and motivated by outdated and dangerous stereotypes. There is a scientific consensus that marijuana is not a performance-enhancing drug; its inclusion on the list of banned substances seems motivated largely by the drug’s negative connotations. The image of a lazy and unmotivated “stoner” is not one pictured at the starting line, and Olympic athletes are held and marketed as the epitome of health and physical wellness.
Yet even without the presence of chemically altering substances (performance-enhancing or not), implicit biases are present in the blocks and swim lanes. When the Olympic standard is seemingly on a scale of whiteness or femininity, genetic diversity becomes a competitive outlier often mistaken as an unfair advantage. In the case of the Namibian runners, dictating the level of hormone that is “normal” in a woman’s body has little to do with competitive advantage and much more to do with the stereotypical notions of femininity and womanhood combined with anthropological ignorance, a stereotype that women of color have yet to circumvent. In the case of the Soul Cap, its very design was meant to aid swimmers, specifically swimmers of color, with thicker or curly hair types, enabling them to get into the pool and put them on an equal playing field rather than enhance their performance. The fact that athletes are being punished for these things in 2021 is abominable, and these institutions need to update their standards quickly.
More broadly, these institutions are severely overstepping the boundaries of control they have over athletes’ lives. Two of the criteria for putting a substance on the banned list of the World Anti-Doping Agency are not even related to performance, but rather to athlete health and to the “spirit of sport” — defined in vague terms as “the ethical pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each Athlete’s natural talents.” It is not our job to police what athletes do with their bodies outside the provisions of the sport, provided it does not give them an unfair competitive advantage, and we desperately need to re-negotiate the personal boundaries of athletes. These policies create inconsistencies between marijuana and substances like nicotine, alcohol and even fast food — substances that can have impacts on health, yet whose usage is not equally monitored by doping agencies. Though athletes are celebrities of health to many, that does not mean the public can have a say in what athletes choose to do with their bodies. There furthermore needs to be a shift in how individuals conceptualize their parasocial relationships with athletes with an emphasis on recognizing the autonomy of the athlete over their personal choices in regards to their health.
It is also intensely hypocritical for these agencies to turn around and demand athletes take substances to alter their natural bodily chemistry to be eligible to compete. The case of banning the Namibian track stars Mboma and Masilingi from the Olympics because of their natural testosterone levels being above average showcases these agencies taking a 180-degree turn. These women have a natural predisposition to greater than average levels of testosterone. No medical enhancement nor drug intervention was the cause. If the worry of these agencies stems from limiting the purposeful modification of an athlete’s physicality, why are they asking other athletes to do just that in order to compete? This seems a far more severe violation to the spirit of sport than a joint.
Finally, both these institutions and society at large must evaluate and acknowledge the problematic and prejudiced roots of many of these rules, and work to unroot their hold on international sports. We must hold ourselves accountable as individuals, and governing bodies must put standards in place that lessen the impact of implicit biases and stereotypes on their practices. Similarly, we can bolster athletes such as Richardson that defy stereotypes and break norms, thereby expanding our view of what “normal” means in the athletic world.
While the Olympics are considered to be a celebration of the human body and spirit, many of the rules and practices surrounding the event are outdated to the detriment of marginalized athletes. If we want to uphold the Olympics as an international celebration of sport, we must do away with outdated standards and regulations and move forward in a manner that ensures we are not leaving anybody out. Our focus on equality and athlete autonomy in international sport cannot end with the closing ceremonies this Sunday.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly asserted that the closing ceremony of the 2020 Summer Olympics was scheduled for Friday, Aug. 6. The closing ceremony was scheduled for and took place on Sunday, Aug. 8.