How Sha’Carri Richardson’s reported Olympic suspension differs from Michael Phelps’ 2009 suspension

Olympic sprinter Sha’Carri Richardon’s hopes of winning an Olympic gold medal in the 100 meters this summer might be gone after it was reported Thursday that she tested positive for marijuana. 

Tyler Dragon of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that Richardson is facing a 30-day suspension, which means she would not be able to compete in the 100 meters in Tokyo because the final is scheduled for July 31. Dragon noted that Richardson might be able to compete in the 4×100 relay, however. The final in that event is set for Aug. 6. 

After the reports of Richardson’s suspension went online, many commenters began wondering why Michael Phelps was able to compete in the Olympics after a photo of him smoking weed from a bong, which he confirmed was authentic, leaked in 2009. 

MORE: USA Olympic track and field trials results

Here’s how Richardson’s situation compares to Phelps’: 

Was Michael Phelps suspended for smoking weed?

Richardson reportedly is facing a 30-day suspension for testing positive for marijuana. Phelps’ penalty after the photo leaked was much stiffer. 

USA Swimming suspended Phelps from competition for three months and said that it would withdraw its financial support of him. 

The fallout from Phelps’ suspension included more than just an inability to compete, though. Kellogg announced that it would not renew its expiring sponsorship deal with Phelps. 

One other major difference between the Richardson and Phelps cases is the timing.

Phelps was suspended in February 2009, six months after the 2008 Olympics and five months before the 2009 World Championships. If Richardson is suspended, the ban would go into effect less than a month before the start of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. 

In addition to a possible suspension, Richardson’s 10.86-second time at the Olympic trials would be wiped out, The New York Times and multiple other outlets reported Thursday. None of Phelps’ times were stricken because he never tested positive for marijuana and the photo of him taking hits from the bong came out after the Olympics. 

What is the Olympic policy on cannabis?

According to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, marijuana is prohibited by the World Anti-Doping Agency, a foundation created by the International Olympic Committee, in-competition “unless an athlete has an approved Therapeutic Use Exemption.” Use of the drug can result in an “anti-doping rule violation and sanction.” Marijuana is considered a health risk, a performance-enhancing substance and a violation of the “spirit of the sport.” USADA adheres to WADA’s World Anti-Doping Code.

USADA states that an athlete can have cannabis in their system at the time of testing but that the amount cannot exceed 150 nanograms per millileter (ng/mL). The agency also notes that it can take weeks or months for cannabis to leave an athlete’s system and that athletes should consult a doctor about a clearance time between the last usage of cannabis and the date of competition. 

WADA lists hashish and marijuana as prohibited forms of cannabinoids while noting that cannabidiol is an exception.

Athletes can be suspended for up to two years under the WADA code for testing positive for marijuana. According to a November 2020 USADA advisory to athletes, the minimum suspension is 30 days if an athlete “can establish that the use of a substance of abuse was out-of-competition and unrelated to sport performance” and “if the athlete successfully completes a substance abuse program that is approved by USADA.”

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