War on Drugs

Olympic Athletes Can Take Drugs so Long as They Also Get an Unfair Advantage

Allowing Kamila Valieva to compete evokes memories of Sha'Carri Richardson, who was suspended from competition for using marijuana.


Amid the ongoing Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, the International Testing Agency revealed that 15-year-old Russian figure skater Kamila Valieva had tested positive for trimetazidine, a heart medication that the agency defines as a "hormone and metabolic modulator." Valieva was suspended from further competition.

The incident follows a long line of flagrant Russian doping violations. After allegations initially surfaced following the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) suspended Russia's testing laboratory's accreditation. A 2017 Academy Award-winning documentary even revealed an "elaborate Ocean's Eleven-style scheme" designed to sneak chemically-enhanced Russian athletes into the games. The country's athletes were banned from competing under their own flag in the 2018, 2020, and 2022 games.

On Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) lifted Valieva's suspension, pending a full investigation. Valieva can still compete, but depending upon the results of the investigation, she may ultimately have to forfeit any medals, including a gold she won last week. But the decision is being met with criticism, including from other Olympic hopefuls.

"Can we get a solid answer on the difference of her situation and mines (sic)?" tweeted sprinter and one-time Team USA aspirant Sha'Carri Richardson, 21, speculating that the only difference is that she is black, and Valieva is white. Last summer, Richardson gained fame as much for her colorful hair and personality as for her impressive qualifying time in the 100-meter, which looked likely to gain her a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

Just days before her qualifying run, Richardson's mother had died. Richardson used marijuana as a means to cope with the grief, which was detected on a drug test. As a result, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) suspended Richardson for a month, rendering her ineligible to compete in Tokyo.

The distinction between Richardson's case and Valieva's is not quite apples to apples. Richardson was kept from qualifying in time trials by two U.S.-based groups based upon their classification of THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana, as a "substance of abuse." Meanwhile, Valieva's suspension was lifted by CAS, an international body created by the International Olympic Committee specifically to hear sports-related disputes in arbitration. In part, CAS concluded that since Valieva is a minor, any punishment would fall more heavily on her coaches and support staff.

But Richardson does have a point: There is an inherent tension between these two events if the goal is simply to have a fair competition on a level playing field. Trimetazidine, the drug Valieva used, is intended to treat cardiac conditions by increasing blood flow to the heart and stabilizing blood pressure. Olympic competitors, including Russians, have been disqualified for using it in years past. Marijuana, on the other hand, is in no way a performance enhancer for a cardiovascular activity like sprinting and in fact, is likely detrimental. And while Valieva's original drug test sample was submitted in late December, the results were not publicly announced until last week, after she had already won a gold medal.

Unfortunately, Richardson's case is entirely predictable, as U.S. officials and private organizations continue to treat marijuana as some sort of untouchable "other" rather than a substance with near-mainstream public support for its legalization. At this year's Super Bowl, both the NFL and NBC rejected advertisements for a marijuana-focused business, even though the game was played in a state where the drug is legal and one of the halftime show performers is as well known for his music as for his marijuana consumption. Besides just being bad public policy, the War on Drugs has permeated public discourse such that it can negatively affect people's livelihoods for no good reason.

Though she is allowed to compete, Valieva may ultimately lose her medals. But even if that happens, the fact remains that she will still have gotten the opportunity to compete on an international stage, despite having used a substance explicitly forbidden for its possibility to grant a competitive edge. Richardson, on the other hand, was denied the opportunity to even qualify, much less perform. While their respective cases are not identical, one thing seems certain: Richardson deserved her spot, and she should have been allowed to compete, too.