In late June, sprinter Sha'Carri Richardson ran the 100m dash in just 10.86 seconds, quickly becoming a favourite to win the gold in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Even Michelle Obama took notice, complimenting Richardson on Twitter, and writing: "We are all so proud of you." As fervent as support for the Dallas-native was after her win, the subsequent outcry just over a week later when it was announced that Richardson would face a one-month suspension from the sport because she had tested positive for marijuana was even more impassioned. It felt wildly unjust that Richardson — not only known for her blistering speed but also for her fiery personal style — would be denied a chance to compete for using a substance that is legal in 18 U.S. states (including Oregon, where she used it), and is not considered to be a performance-enhancing drug.
Following her initial suspension, many people pointed out the cruel irony of a Black athlete being suspended for marijuana specifically, since Black people and people of colour have long been disproportionately targeted and criminalized in the immoral War on Drugs. But Richardson isn’t the only Black athlete to face backlash this year. Also in June, hammer thrower Gwen Berry was criticized for protesting the national anthem during the U.S. Olympic trials. While her protest didn't result in any punitive action, the IOC said such demonstrations would be banned at the Olympics on the medals podium, on the field, and at the opening and closing ceremonies.
Last week, U.S. track star Brianna McNeal lost her appeal of a five-year suspension from competing in the Olympics after missing a drug test in January. She said in an interview she was recovering from an abortion at the time. Commenting on McNeal's ban, Color of Change, a nonprofit civil rights advocacy organization, tweeted: "Yet again, the Olympics continue a pattern of selectively & cruelly punishing Black women."
Racism against Black American athletes isn't isolated to this year's games, of course. After track and field athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the Games held in Nazi-ruled Berlin in 1936, he was forced to enter through the back door of a reception held in his honour in the U.S.
In 1968, when athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists on the podium in a Black Power salute after winning gold and silver medals, Avery Brundage — then-leader of America's Olympic organizations and the fifth president of the IOC — had them removed from the Olympic Village. They were also suspended from the U.S. Olympic team. Brundage said at the time, "The boys were sent home, but they should not have been there in the first place."
More recently, during the 2016 Games in Rio, Simone Manuel became the first African-American to win a gold medal at an individual Olympic swimming event, but the San Jose Mercury News framed her win as "Olympics: Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American." (The paper later issued an apology and changed the headline online.) The same year, the Philadelphia Daily News mistakenly printed a photo of gymnast Simone Biles with a story about Gabby Douglas, when reporting on the negative comments Douglas received about her appearance at the games.
Douglas, in particular, received an overwhelming amount of scrutiny in 2016 for not smiling "enough" as she stood on the gold podium alongside her teammates. She was criticized for appearing "disconnected" and "blank and distant," as one sports columnist put it. Douglas also received criticism because she didn't place her hand on her heart during the National Anthem. Additionally, the gold medalist's hair was called "unkempt,") and was a racially coded topic of conversation at both the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. Douglas addressed the comments in 2012 bluntly stating, "What's wrong with my hair? I'm like, I just made history and people are focused on my hair? It can be bald or short; it doesn't matter about [my] hair."
Although many people pointed out the racism behind the comments toward Douglas, five years later, things haven't significantly changed. Black women athletes have already received a notable number of penalizations, suspensions, and criticism — and the Olympics haven't even started yet.
Beyond the experiences of Richardson, Berry, and McNeal, the Olympics governing body recently issued a ban on Soul Caps, a brand of swim caps designed to meet the hair needs of Black swimmers. The swim caps are made to fit over and protect thick, curly, natural hair, as well as dreadlocks, weaves, extensions, and braids from chlorine damage. "Between Sha'Carri Richardson and this, the Olympics really are sending quite the message to black women," sports journalist Jemele Hill wrote on Twitter of the Soul Caps ban.
The Committee also barred two Black women athletes from Namibia, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, from competing in the 400m race due to blood testosterone levels. The same rule was used to disqualify South African Olympic champion Caster Semenya, and CeCe Telfer, a Black trans athlete who was not allowed to race in the 400m trials last month.
Another disturbing aspect of these events is that they have invited inflammatory, racist discourse from other people, like right-wing journalist Claire Lehmann, who recently compared Richardson to Olympic track and field gold medalist Florence Griffith Joyner, alleging that they both used steroids. Joyner — also known as FloJo — was one of the most decorated Olympic women sprinters in American history, having set the world records for both the 100m and 200m sprints; she died at the age of 39. Lehmann used Richardson’s suspension to accuse the late Joyner of using drugs, saying that FloJo eventually died from "a lifetime of drug use" in a blog post and podcast episode. Lehmann also said she was sure that both women used steroids. "In case you didn't know, very strong nails & hair can be a side effect of steroid use," Lehmann asserted.
Lehmann's accusations were despicable, and actor Holly Robinson Peete's response on Twitter sums up why: "My beautiful and talented friend Florence Griffith Joyner, aka Flo Jo, died from an epileptic seizure caused by a congenital vascular abnormality that caused seizures, NOT FROM DRUGS I don’t know who you are but keep her name out of your lying mouth."
But, Lehmann's response is a symptom of what happens when systemic racism is ignored and perpetuated — and that's exactly what's happening within the Olympics. The IOC's rules, which led to multiple Black women athletes being suspended, disqualified, or unable to use the appropriate athletic gear, are being used to perpetuate anti-Black racism and are enforced in a manner that keeps Black women on the sidelines, without a chance to take home the gold. At the Olympic trials, Richardson became the fastest woman in the world. There isn't a rule in the world that can undo that.