Hayward Field

Located across from the William Knight Law Center, Hayward Field is the University of Oregon Track and Field team's stadium. (DL Young/Emerald).

Track Town USA, once again, became center stage for track and field in early June during the 2021 Olympic Trials. Sha’Carri Richardson, favored runner for the USA Olympic 100 meter dash, stole the hearts of Eugene locals with her face gracing the downtown Nike storefront. The excitement for Richardson’s accomplishments was quickly overshadowed following a suspension — a suspension that should make us all consider the human experience and the importance of mental health.

Richardson crossed the finish line in the 100 meter dash at the Olympic trials in 10.6 seconds, securing her spot on the Olympic team. Richardson demonstrated her poise when she revealed in her post-event interviews that she had lost her mother a week before her historic win. Grieving during one of the most important and joyful times of your life is bittersweet. On top of grieving, the pressure of being one of the top athletes in the country is unimaginable.

Following the national celebration of Richardson, an announcement of her suspension rocked media outlets and shocked the world. On June 25, 2021, The United States Anti-Doping Agency declared the 21-year-old sprinter was put on a 30-day suspension for a positive THC test. Richardson’s case demonstrates the outdatedness of cannabis laws and policies. Policies that were originally created when weed was illegal are no longer societally relevant when it’s now being taxed in 18 states and is decriminalized in 27. Richardson was suspended because THC is classified by the 2021 Anti-Doping Code as a substance of abuse. Usually, athletes are disqualified because of performance enhancing drugs. THC does not fall under the performance enhancing drug category, yet it is still seen as an abusive substance.

Cannabis is used medicinally and recreationally, and it has mental health benefits. As a 21-year-old in the state of Oregon, Richardson’s use of cannabis was legal. The Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery found that patients who used cannabis to treat problems like anxiety had reduced symptoms and improved cognitive performance.

Richardson’s positive test follows the death of her mother. At 21 years old, competing in the biggest event in her life thus far, the pressure and earth-shattering grievance is something all athletes and people can empathize with. Considering the unbelievable mental toll the two week period before the trials Richardson had, I am not shocked that a young adult would cope by using a substance such as cannabis. A young Black woman — one of the fastest women in America — should be able to represent this country with her talent. However, Richardson’s situation unfortunately represents our country accurately in the general attitude towards mental health. Big names such as the NCAA and USA national teams preach of the importance of athlete mental health. However, the rules and regulations written and enforced by the corporations do not reflect the importance of mental health amongst athletes.

Richardson was aware of drug testing rules, and every Olympian must play by the rules to compete. In an interview with Sanya Richards-Ross and Van Lathan on their podcast, “Higher Learning,” Richardson said, “The minute you cross the finish line first you are getting tested (drug tested).”

Richardson’s disregard for the rules can be attributed to her 21-year-old ego and a significant traumatic loss. Any other weekend Richardson would have coped with cannabis, she would have not been penalized.

Richardson’s case demonstrates the ongoing evolution of women’s mental health in society. This suspension should be a turning point in athletics. Athletes train to be superhuman, but being superhuman does not mean that you are exempt from human emotion. Taking a moment to reflect on being human is one of the greatest outcomes of the Richardson events. Grieving is inevitable, mistakes are inevitable and sadness is a plague. In the Van Lathan interview, Richards-Ross went on to say, “the best part of the conversation will be following mental health.” Other athletics such as football and basketball have loosened restrictions from marijuana for these reasons. Grieving is human. Richardson may be superhuman on the track, but she’s human nonetheless.

The USA Olympic track and field team cannot compete without an essential part of their team and will most likely suffer, or have already significantly suffered, because of this. So, when are we going to realize that winning is more important than giving consequences for actions that are human?

Underneath superhuman talent and insane quads, track stars are people just like you and me. Richardson should be able to run to show the world that grief does not have to take away from your success. Richardson should be able to run because running should be more than following rules. More than anything, Richardson should be able to run because athletes should be able to take care of their mental health — safely and legally.