Did U.S. Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps get a lighter penalty than U.S. runner Sha'Carri Richardson for smoking marijuana? No, that's not true: Phelps was suspended from competition for three months, while Richardson was suspended for one month.
The timing of the suspensions, however, made the impact of the suspensions seem harsher for Richardson. Phelps' suspension came six months after he won a record eight gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Richardson's positive drug test coincided with the U.S. track and field trials in June and her suspension began on June 28, 2021. This invalidated her winning performance at the trials, making her ineligible to compete in the 100-meter competition at the Tokyo Olympics in July. A chance remains that she can be selected for the U.S. women's 4x100 meter relay team since that competition starts in August after the suspension has ended.
The claim of a double standard appeared on social media, including a Facebook post (archived here) published July 2, 2021. The text read:
Michael Phelps smoked weed,kept all his medals and still participated in the Olympics. Don't y'all start this mess with Sha'Carri 🙄😒💯💯
This is what the post looked like on Facebook at the time of writing:
(Source: Facebook screenshot taken on Fri Jul 2 17:50:52 2021 UTC)
Richardson, 21, delivered a stunning 10.86-second performance in the final women's 100-meter race at the U.S. track and field trials in Oregon, but testing by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency revealed the presence of a substance found in marijuana, according to a July 2, 2021 release from the USADA:
Richardson, 21, tested positive for 11-nor-9-carboxy-tetrahydrocannabinol (Carboxy-THC), a urinary metabolite of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive constituent of cannabis, marijuana, and hashish, above the urinary Decision Limit of 180 ng/mL, as the result of a sample collected in competition at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on June 19, 2021. Cannabis, marijuana, and hashish are Specified Substances in the class of Cannabinoids and are prohibited in competition under the USADA Protocol for Olympic and Paralympic Movement Testing, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee National Anti-Doping Policy, and the World Athletics Anti-Doping Rules, all of which, as required, have adopted the World Anti-Doping Code and the World Anti-Doping Agency Prohibited List.
USADA CEO Travis T. Tygart said Richardson agreed to the suspension:
The rules are clear, but this is heartbreaking on many levels; hopefully, her acceptance of responsibility and apology will be an important example to us all that we can successfully overcome our regrettable decisions, despite the costly consequences of this one to her.
The announcement said Richardson's punishment was the lightest allowed under the rules:
Richardson's period of ineligibility was reduced to one month because her use of cannabis occurred out of competition and was unrelated to sport performance, and because she successfully completed a counseling program regarding her use of cannabis. Her one-month period of ineligibility--the minimum allowed under the rules--is the same result as the two other Substance of Abuse cases that USADA has handled since the 2021 Code took effect.
Phelps did not fail a drug test. It was a photo of him smoking marijuana that was leaked months after he won his medals that led to his three-month suspension and loss of financial support. He was able to compete in the World Championships five months later because the suspension had ended.
It would not be against the law for Richardson to smoke pot at the trials since recreational marijuana is legal in Oregon. But the anti-doping agency cited on its FAQ page a medical study that concluded it could both harm athletes and enhance their performance:
1. Athletes who smoke cannabis or Spice in-competition potentially endanger themselves and others because of increased risk taking, slower reaction times and poor executive function or decision making.
2. Based on current animal and human studies as well as on interviews with athletes and information from the field, cannabis can be performance enhancing for some athletes and sports disciplines.
3. Use of illicit drugs that are harmful to health and that may have performance-enhancing properties is not consistent with the athlete as a role model for young people around the world.