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EDITORIAL: Olympic drug controversy underscores need for comprehensive reforms

As controversy over Russian drug use during olympics unfolds, issues linger over Sha'Carri Richardson's treatment

Another Olympic drug controversy highlights structural issues that need to be addressed.  – Photo by NBC Sports / Twitter

As the 2022 Winter Olympics take place, a controversy over athletes using drugs has emerged. The driving tension is over the treatment of American Sha’Carri Richardson, a Black woman and track star, and white Russian figure skater, Kamila Valieva.

Richardson was banned from the Summer Olympics last year for testing positive for THC, while Valieva — who tested positive for trimetazidine, a performance-enhancing drug — has been allowed to compete.

It is important to point out that we do not believe Valieva should be personally held responsible for the use of drugs. Russia's Olympic teams have a storied history of using drugs during the Olympics to get ahead and win. Moreover, Valieva was given and forced to use the drugs by her coach

Valieva is only 15 years old. At such an age, Valieva receives special protections by law from using performance-enhancing drugs. This forced consumption of drugs opens up a larger conversation about athletics and young athletes as a whole.

These drugs might increase her performance in the moment, but they will do much more damage over the years. Indeed, trimetazidine is allowed in Europe but is only for those older than 18.

As such, Valieva should not be held personally held accountable. Her coaches and all those in positions of authority around her should be — whether that means banning them from coaching in the future or fines, they should be the ones most responsible for the drug use.

Despite these differences, the story presents a difficult image — an image that, regardless of intent, highlights the disparities between the treatment of Black athletes and others and an all-too-familiar double standard.

For starters, Richardson did not use a performance enhancement drug: She used marijuana to cope with the news of her biological mother’s death. 

The World Anti-Doping Agency has three criteria for drugs that they ban: if it harms the health of the athlete, if it is performance-enhancing or if it is against the spirit of the sport.

The only category that seems completely reasonable is if the drug enhances performance. While the health of the athlete is crucial and should be prioritized, the committee still allows alcohol — something that could do incredible damage to an athlete. The third category, if it is against the spirit of the sport, is incredibly vague and arbitrary and should be reconsidered. Or at the very least, made to be more specific.

Richardson’s use of marijuana met two of the listed criteria: It harmed the athlete, and it went against the spirit of the sport. This categorization seems completely out of touch, as they feel more like barriers to keep certain players out rather than mechanisms to protect the honor of the sport.

We also need to point out the long history of criminalizing marijuana that has disproportionately affected Black and Brown communities — this history and its continued strains cannot be overlooked and points to serious systemic barriers that women of color continue to face.

Richardson, aware of this problematic past, tweeted that the only difference she saw was that she is a young Black woman. As she points to, the use of laws that criminalize marijuana had a racial undercurrent that disproportionately affect Black Americans.

The link between that history and the current moment points to the contrasts between a white athlete and a Black athlete and highlights how we need to further commit ourselves to undoing that legacy.

That goal begins with any agency's responsibilities for creating policies, especially as they relate to drugs. Any agency that develops rules such as these should be diverse and reflect an array of lived experiences.

If this is accomplished, rules can be developed that understand the nuances of drug laws, leading to better policies. As it is impossible to decouple incidents such as these from race — we need to create policy that takes into account these disparities.

Another central thing that we need to collectively accomplish — and this extends beyond the Richardson and Valieva controversy — is that we need to listen more. We need people in positions of power to listen to what the public is saying, and we need to ensure that we create a better sense of community so that these institutions remain trusted.

Last year, when reports first came out about Richardson, many people expressed their opposition to the rules and signaled for change. The Olympic Committee should have understood that and made certain policies clearer and created a single standard: If any athlete uses a banned substance, they will not be able to compete. 

Transparency and openness to change must be paramount in every policy-making process. As students, we can continue to push for this change from the bottom up, and we can ensure that people who are in positions of power around us, whether university administrators, local politicians or beyond, understand the importance of listening and ending any and all double standards.

Beyond that, we must continue to dedicate ourselves to learning more and being more aware of the challenges – both historic and present – that our fellow citizens face.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 154th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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