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The International Olympic Committee is Failing Black Women

Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates after winning during fourth heat at Olympics 2021
Black women are required to alter their bodies and practices, inside and out, simply to step onto the playing field.
Sha'Carri Richardson celebrates after winning during fourth heat at Olympics 2021
Ria Tabacco Mar,
Director, Women’s Rights Project
ReNika Moore,
Director, ACLU's Racial Justice Program
Schanelle Saldanha,
Communications Intern
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July 16, 2021

In just 10.86 seconds, Sha’Carri Richardson made history when she crossed the finish line for the Women’s 100-meter dash at the U.S. Olympic track and field trial. In an instant, the 21-year-old became an overnight sensation as she set her sights on representing the nation in Tokyo.

“I just want the world to know that I’m THAT girl,” she exclaimed to the world, as fans and onlookers fixated on her poise, ambition, and, yes, bright orange hair.

But only a few days later, the world received very different news: Richardson was suspended for a month over a positive marijuana test, which ultimately resulted in her complete exclusion from the Olympic Games.

Her story became an all too familiar symbol of the barriers that Black women have to endure in every sector of life, including elite sports. Time and time again, the select obstacles reserved for Black women athletes are harsh reminders of the hurdles Black women have to continuously clear — on and off the field.

Just this year, the International Federation that governs swimming (FINA) banned swimming caps designed for natural Black hair because the caps did not “fit the natural form of the head.” The decision was telling because of whose hair — and heads — were excluded from FINA’s definition of “natural.” FINA decided to reassess the ban only after its initial decision was met with backlash. Shortly after the swimming cap ban, two Namibian runners were disqualified from the Olympics for their natural testosterone levels — reinforcing the harsh reality that the policing of who counts as a “woman” has always been deeply racialized. And when hammer thrower Gwen Berry practiced her right to peacefully protest racial injustice at the track and field trials, some lawmakers called for her to be removed from the Olympic team altogether.

The very differences that are overlooked, and even celebrated for other athletes, are weaponized against Black women. Take Michael Phelps’ “unique genetic blessings,” including unusually long arms, double-jointed ankles, and a body that produces half the lactic acid of the average athlete. Phelps has been praised as a marvel for these genetic mutations, which enhance his ability to excel in his sport. Meanwhile, athletes like Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi — whose bodies naturally produce testosterone at a higher level than the average woman — are shamed and ultimately disqualified from competing at all.

The double standard is glaring: Black women are required to alter their bodies and practices, inside and out, simply to step onto the playing field. And once they finally have a spot, their achievements are denied and their work is undermined, punished, and disqualified for reasons that are profoundly unfair.

Richardson, for example, has said she used marijuana (a depressant) for relief from what she described as “emotional panic” following the news of her biological mother’s death only days before the race. Her resilience in the face of the tragedy took center stage during her post-event interview when she broke the news about the passing. While many sympathized with her situation then, little grace was offered when it came to how she chose to grieve, even though there still remains no scientific evidence that marijuana can create bigger, stronger, or faster athletes.

Richardson’s exclusion cannot be divorced from racial disparities in marijuana enforcement, however. Even though Black people and white people use marijuana at similar rates, Black people are still 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Richardson’s excellence challenges notions of white supremacy — making her success a threat to the very Olympic team that she qualified to be on. In fact, the legacy of chattel slavery in the United States burdens Black women because of their race and their gender. From generational wealth inequality — caused in large part because they carry the biggest burden of the student loan debt crisis — to the increased violence against Black women, nearly every system in America has failed Black women. The International Olympic Committee shouldn’t be one of them.

Although Sha’Carri will not compete in Tokyo, she isn’t giving up. Instead, she’s looking ahead to next year.

“I’m sorry, I can’t be y’all Olympic Champ this year but I promise I’ll be your World Champ next year,” she wrote on Twitter.

But the International Olympic Committee doesn’t have to wait until then to address the exclusionary effects of its policies, as Black women across the country make clear that they will no longer be pushed off the podium.

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